Pro wrestling has markets all over the world but there are four big ones: The US and Canada, Mexico, the UK, and Japan. Each one of them has their own unique style and attitude toward wrestling. In some places, it’s taken more seriously than in others, which is why so many wrestlers hope and pray they get booked in Japan.
For decades there was this mentality among wrestlers that getting booked in Japan was both a sign of respect toward one’s skills and a way to improve said skills. Many wrestlers have gone to Japan to wrestle and have come back to their home countries better for it.
But does that always happen? Read on to find out.
Once again I’ve found five matches involving some of your favorite wrestlers competing in Japan. Let’s see if they too showed off different sides of themselves when they weren’t in their original environments.
5. Tommy Dreamer vs Akira Taue – AJPW, January 19th, 1995
Background: Somehow, Paul Heyman convinced Giant Baba that he could lend a few of his ECW guys to AJPW for a tour in early 1995 and Dreamer got signed. Dreamer spent most of that time either jobbing or teaming with much bigger names like Stan Hansen and ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams. But in this match (which happened to be on the undercard for arguably the best 60-minute draw match ever), Dreamer took on Akira Taue, one of AJPW’s mythical Four Pillars. But would the magic that led to Taue sharing that reputation with better wrestlers appear here as well?
The match: The first few lock-ups lead to nothing and when Dreamer goes for a shoulder block off a headlock Taue doesn’t move. Dreamer ducks a boot and hits a tackle but Taue brushes it off so Dreamer dropkicks him to the floor. Dreamer sends Taue into the barricade and then once back in the ring he applies an abdominal stretch. Taue throws Dreamer off and drapes him throat-first on the top rope. Taue follows with a chinlock and then another abdominal stretch. Dreamer avoids a vertical suplex and lands another shoulder block for a one-count and a back suplex for a two-count. then Dreamer slams Taue and hits a pretty bad frog splash for another two-count. Taue gets his boot up to avoid a corner charge and hits a clothesline. Dreamer avoids a piledriver and charges but walks into a powerslam for a two-count. Taue follows with a short-range lariat and a chokeslam for the pin and the win.
Winner after 4:24: Akira Taue
Review: Bizarre and boring match. It was under five minutes long and featured nothing but BASIC moves. Dreamer did 80% of the work but Taue made a quick comeback and won with a simple chokeslam. Nothing really interesting here, just the novelty of seeing Dreamer wrestling in a non-hardcore environment.
Final Rating: *1/4
4. Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Cactus Jack – AJPW Champion Carnival 1991, March 26th, 1991
Background: In one of the biggest ‘wow that really happened’ stories in pro wrestling, Mick Foley actually wrestled for All Japan at one point. But his time in AJPW was a short one because Foley got in trouble with Giant Baba’s wife Motoko, who was responsible for booking the company’s foreign talent. Foley’s crime? Injuring Johnny Ace, who was her favorite wrestler.
The match: Tsuruta gets a clean break but then Cactus fires back with strikes. But then Tsuruta fires up and hits elbows of his own followed by a jumping knee for a big pop. Cactus throws Tsuruta to ringside and goes to whip him into the barricade. But then Tsuruta reverses it and Cactus goes flying over it and into the fans. Tsuruta plays to the crowd as Cactus paces around frustrated. Back in the ring, Tsuruta applies an abdominal stretch but Cactus throws him off. Cactus gets a quick two-count off a back elbow and throws Tsuruta into a ringpost. Cactus hits a rib breaker and then lands his Cactus Elbow from the apron to the exposed floor. He headlocks Tsuruta but Tsuruta counters with a back suplex onto the floor. Tsuruta recovers and follows with a lariat that sends Cactus falling back to the floor. Tsuruta throws Cactus back into the ring and hits both another jumping knee and a Backdrop suplex for the pin and the win.
Winner after 4:58: Jumbo Tsuruta
Review: A very simple match without any real story. Cactus got little offense in and had one or two moments of control, but he didn’t stand a chance. Tsuruta was the company ace and made a quick and easy comeback after everything Cactus threw at him. On paper this was a squash, but it was an All Japan-style squash which meant that Cactus got something beneficial out of it. He looked completely fine for a few minutes despite the massive gulf between his opponent and himself. But at least Cactus/Foley can say he wrestled in an All Japan ring during their golden decade and he wouldn’t be lying.
Final Rating: *3/4
3. Keiji Muto vs. “Dr. Death” Steve Williams – AJPW Champion Carnival 2002, March 24th, 2002
Background: Doc returned to Japan after his failed WWE run. And when the NOAH exodus happened, Doc stayed with All Japan. So even though All Japan’s roster was gutted of its native talent, they still had a handful of loyal gaijins that they could rely on to be big draws. Then by early 2002, Muto jumped ship to All Japan permanently and became the company’s new president. For a while, Muto juggled the dual roles of being a promoter with being a wrestler, which made it much less likely that he’d beat Doc, no matter how far removed Doc was from his prime.
The match: They start with some amateur wrestling and Doc takes Muto down. Doc escapes a full nelson and takes Muto down again but then Muto escapes quickly. Muto lands a headlock takeover and the two wrestlers trade control on the mat some more. Doc powers up, sends Muto into the ropes, and stays put on a shoulderblock spot. Muto ducks a clothesline and hits a dropkick and then it’s back to the mat. Doc tries escaping another headlock with a Backdrop but Muto counters with another takeover to the mat. After another long headlock, Doc elbows out and hits a corner Stinger splash. A spinebuster gets Doc a one-count so he starts working over Muto’s leg. Doc lands some stiff shots and goes for a running elbow drop nut Muto dodges and hits his patented flashing elbow drop. Muto goes back to the headlock but Doc fights out again and tackles Muto down. Doc dumps Muto ringside and sets up a commentary table against the barricade, and then throws Muto into it. Then he drapes Muto throat-first onto the edge of the barricade.
Back in the ring, Doc taunts Muto and stiffs him with chops. Muto dodges another Stinger splash and lands a bulldog. Muto starts spamming dropkicks to Doc’s knee and then hits a dragon screw followed by a Figure-4 leglock. Doc gets a ropebreak, blocks another dragon screw, and hits a Dangerous Backdrop Driver! The ref confirms Muto’s still conscious and counts the pin but Muto kicks out at 2.6. Gutwrench powerbomb. Muto kicks out again. Doc tries another Dangerous Backdrop but Muto lands behind him and hits DTK #3, followed by a Shining Wizard. One, two, Doc gets a ropebreak. Muto lands a rib breaker and goes for his moonsault but Doc cuts him off and hits an electric chair suplex. Doc charges for a lariat. Muto hits DTK #4. Muto attempts a Frankensteiner but Doc counters with a powerbomb for another two-count. Dangerous Backdrop Driver #2. Doc gets the pin and the win over Muto!
Winner after 15:16: “Dr. Death” Steve Williams
Review: This wasn’t anywhere near as good as Doc’samazingmatches from the prior decade (though that was to be expected) but it was still solid. It was very basic in terms of structure: lots of amateur-style grappling, simple moves throughout, and a fun finishing stretch filled with counters and high-impact bombs. They kept things simple with Muto trying to take Doc’s power game from under him but it wasn’t enough. Doc was just too strong for Muto’s tricks and spiked him with two Dangerous Backdrops. Doc sold pretty well but still had enough endurance to overcome Muto’s singular yet efficient strategy. For a match between one wrestler way past his prime and another so limited he could only do a handful of moves (but do them very well), this was totally fine.
Final Rating: **3/4
3. Keiji Muto vs. Steve Austin – NJPW G1 Climax 1992, August 10th, 1992
Background: Austin wrestled for WCW during the early 1990s. WCW had a working relationship with New Japan that saw each company’s wrestlers compete on each other’s shows. Here, Austin took on one of NJPW’s biggest rising stars in New Japan’s big annual tournament.
The match: They shake hands and the match begins. They start with some hold exchanges and Muto escapes a waistlock with a backflip kick. Austin double-legs Muto but Muto avoids an elbow drop. They trade headscissors until Muto gets a ropebreak. Austin takes Muto to the mat with a headlock takeover but Muto tries rolling him over but only gets a one-count. Muto fights to his feet but Austin tackles him down. Muto fights back with a dropkick and lands locks in another grounded headlock. Austin fights up and into an overhead arm wrench and the two wrestlers struggle for control until Austin spins around into a clothesline for a two-count. Austin hits some corner strikes and shoulder checks but then Muto reverses a corner whip and lands a spinning jumpkick.
Muto follows with a snapmare/flashing elbow combo and starts working over Austin’s leg. Muto applies a heel hook and then switches to first a deathlock and then his trademark Muta lock until Austin gets a ropebreak. Muto starts targeting Austin’s legs but Austin stays on the defensive. Austin legscissors Muto and the two trade holds on the mat until Muto reapplies the deathlock. Austin counters with a roll-up and hits a bunch of strikes. Austin sends Muto into the ropes but Muto ducks his clothesline. Muto tries a crossbody press but Austin catches him and hotshots him against the top rope for a two-count. Austin gets another two-count off a suplex and applies a grounded chinlock. Muto escapes and sends Austin into the ropes but Austin holds onto them to avoid a dropkick. Austin follows with a kneedrop for a two-count and then applied a deep chinlock until Muto gets another ropebreak. Austin goes for a rolling corner spear but Muto sidesteps and then lands a back body drop followed by his famous handspring corner back elbow. Muto lands a rib breaker and goes to the top rope. He dives for his snap moonsault but somehow lands on his feet as Austin rolls away. Muto dropkicks Austin to ringside and then hits a Plancha onto him. Muto sends Austin into the barricade and goes for his handspring elbow again, but this time Austin dodges and Muto hits the barricade himself.
The crowd finally wakes up as Austin suplexes Muto onto the ringside mats and drapes him against the top of the barricade. Austin follows with a suplex into the ring and locks in a single leg crab. Muto gets a ropebreak so Austin drops some knees on him. He elbows Muto’s collar and lands his own rib breaker for another two-count. Then Austin lifts Muto onto his shoulder for a Canadian backbreaker stretch but Muto uses the ropes to flip out of it. Muto then flips over again into a bridging pin for a two-count. Muto avoids another Canadian backbreaker and lands a facecrusher. He goes for a diving elbow drop but Austin avoids it and covers for a two-count. Austin slams Muto and attempts a diving kneedrop but misses. Muto rushes to ascend the top rope but accidentally falls to the floor. Someone call Botchamania. Moments later, Austin tries a piledriver but Muto powers out. He lands another rib breaker followed by a successful snap moonsault for the pin and the win.
Winner after 17:05: Keiji Muto
Review: Interesting match for its novelty and trivia factors but not much else to it. There wasn’t anything really ‘wrong’ with this match aside from Muto getting too excited and faceplanting on the floor when climbing a turnbuckle. That stopped the match dead but he recovered quickly and still finished the match as planned. The action was fine but there wasn’t much direction to it. In typical 1990s New Japan style, the match was built as a test of different moves with both guys experimenting with different ideas until one of them worked well enough to lead to the finish. This contrasted with All Japan at the time which had a bit more story, narrative, and clear direction. So if you prefer to go into a match completely unaware of what to expect and just see random stuff chained together, you’ll like this match. For two guys that never faced each other before one-on-one, this was pretty good, though a tad underwhelming.
Final Rating: ***
1. The Super Generation Army (Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi & Tsuyoshi Kikuchi) vs. Giant Baba, Dory Funk, Jr. & André the Giant – AJPW, March 4th, 1992
Background: This is basically a past vs. present match. Kawada is the top rising star here, Kobashi is his #2, and Kikuchi is the junior heavyweight destined to take the fall because Baba didn’t really care about juniors as much as Inoki did in New Japan. Speaking of Baba, here he’s playing the role of lovable company owner with nothing but goodwill while the workhorse of his team is Dory Funk Jr. Dory’s a big deal because he both worked All Japan decades prior and he played an integral role in training Kobashi how to wrestle. Lastly there’s André, who looks to be so done with wrestling. The aura’s gone here; he looks old, slow, heavy, and like he wishes he were elsewhere. But I guess he couldn’t give up wrestling just yet and wanted to do the only thing he knew before his body gave up on him.
The match: Dory offers a handshake from his opponents and gets one from all but Kawada. The bell rings and the crowd chants Dory’s name as he locks up with Kikuchi. A nice little amateur wrestling exchange ensues and then Dory powers Kikuchi into a corner and hits nasty elbow smashes. Another exchange ensues and Dory shows Kikuchi how it’s done. Kikuchi hits some elbows and goes for a hiptoss but Dory counters with an abdominal stretch into a pin for a one-count. Kikuchi strikes back and powers Dory into his corner so that Kawada can tag in. Kawada hits stiff chops but Dory hits harder with another elbow. Kawada starts hitting back with kicks and absorbs as many elbows as he can, but he goes for one kick to many as Dory ducks it and drops Kawada. But Kawada’s kicks appear to take their toll so Dory tags Baba. Kawada powers Baba into the ropes but Baba counters with a quick schoolboy roll-up for a one-count. Baba gets a bunch of one-counts by pressing Kawada down but Kawada fights out and tags Kobashi. The two trade chops against the ropes until Kobashi ducks a clothesline and knocks Baba off his feet with a shoulderblock. Then somehow, Kobashi lands his rolling cradle (which usually works best on small and nimble wrestler) on Giant freaking Baba for a two-count.
Baba fights out of a headlock and tags André who hits a big forearm club to Kobashi’s chest. André hits more simple strikes but it’s André so of course they hurt Kobashi. Kobashi counters with a shoulder tackle and tags Kikuchi. Kikuchi charges at André but just bounces off of the giant without much effect. Kikuchi acts as fiery and underdog-like as he can but André just swats him away. But then Kawada comes in and he just doesn’t give a f**k. He kicks André so hard that André can clearly be heard bellowing “OWWW” in response. Kawada even tries slamming André but André knees him and stands on his hand. Kawada responds with a kick to André’s calf which causes André to hobble over to tag Dory.
Kawada lands a massive spinkick on Dory but only gets a one-count. Dory blocks a suplex so Kawada counters with a sleeper with bodyscissors but Baba breaks it up. Kobashi tags in and hits a suplex for a two-count. Dory fights out of a chinlock and hits some snap elbow smashes and a butterfly suplex for a two-count. Kobashi regains control with some kicks to Dory’s head and tags Kikuchi. The two trade elbow smashes until Kawada tags in and hits a running lariat for a two-count. He follows with some chop takedowns for a two-count and then tags Kobashi, who also hits stiff chops. Kobashi follows with a corner lariat/DDT combo for a two-count of his own followed by a Hogan leg drop. Then Kobashi tries a rope-assisted leg drop but Dory dodges it and tags Baba. Baba lands some coconut crash knees to Kobashi’s face and goes for a suplex but Kikichi makes the save. Kobashi holds Baba in place so that Kikuchi can dropkick him. Then Kobashi slams Baba and hits his diving moonsault. One, two, Baba kicks out.
Kawada tags in and lands his patented stepkicks. He lands more stiff strikes and then does something rare: Kawada goes to the top rope with a diving back elbow. Kawada covers but Dory makes the save. Kawada dumps Dory to ringside as Kobashi leg drops Baba and dropkicks André. Kawada kneedrops Baba and tags Kikuchi who lands a diving head-butt for a two-count. Baba reverses an irish whip and Kawada holds his own partner against the ropes to save him from Baba’s big boot. Kikuchi charges a second time but Baba gets his kick in and tags Dory. Kikuchi counters an elbow smash into a backslide for a two-count. Dory kicks out of a bridging Perfect-plex so Kobashi comes in to hold him in place for a Kikuchi diving dropkick. But André attacks Kobashi from behind and Dory dodges Kikuchi’s dropkick. André holds Kobashi in a corner as Dory locks in his spinning toe hold. Kikuchi reverses into an inside cradle and Kawada goes after Baba. Dory kicks out at two and then gets a two-count on his own inside cradle. Baba and Kawada brawl ringside as André keeps Kobashi immobilized and Kikuchi hits Dory with running elbows. Kikuchi goes for a leg lariat but Dory counters into another spinning toe hold. Kikuchi taps. The legends win.
Winners after 14:48: Giant Baba, Dory Funk, Jr. and André the Giant
Review: Surprisingly great match given the names involved. André didn’t do much given how old and broken down he was and I think Kawada hit him a bit too hard, given how he howled in pain. Baba was surprisingly agile in this match and actually went along with Kobashi’s rolling cradle at one point and did whatever he could to make sure his star power rubbed off on the younger guys here.
But the star of the match was Dory Funk Jr. Seriously, this man’s movements and body language just scream “wrestler”. He was slow but not “methodical”; his motions had a snap and smoothness to them that made him look like he was in complete control whenever he was in contact with someone. He looked and moved like he would lock in a very real and torturous submission hold at any moment and that his opponents were in danger if they gave him too much time or space.
The last five minutes was great with some smart wrestling and terrific counters and near-falls. These sort of six-man matches were All Japan’s bread and butter but the real novelty here is seeing Dory wrestle so well and André share the ring with two of the best in-ring workers ever in Kawada and Kobashi.
Final Rating: ***1/4