(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: KENTA and Marufuji vs. Liger and Murahama – NOAH, July 16th, 2003
These days the wrestling landscape is filled with high-flyers, hard-hitters, and creative types that like to think they’re on the cusp of doing something new. But because there are so many of the same people, a lot of what we see nowadays has so many similarities.
Whether you watch WWE, NXT, AEW, or something from the recent past, there’s this unshakable sense of sameness among so many wrestlers and their matches.
But it wasn’t always like this. There was a time, almost twenty years ago, when things still felt fresh and truly innovative. There was a time when smaller guys weren’t as copy-and-paste as they are now. If you ask me, modern junior heavyweight wrestling had more than one peak. One was between 1990 and 1998 with the New Japan juniors. And then there was a second peak in Pro Wrestling NOAH between 2003 and 2009. The first peak has already been well documented so now it’s time to look at the second one.
Today we look back at the tag match between junior heavyweights KENTA & Naomichi Marufuji and Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger and Takehiro Murahama from Pro Wrestling NOAH.
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.
NOAH founder and head booker Mitsuharu Misawa wanted to both continue Giant Baba’s King’s Road vision with his new company and also do something different. One of Misawa’s most notable differences in NOAH was that he gave lots more attention to junior heavyweight wrestlers. Misawa wanted the juniors to be seen as close to equals to the heavyweights as possible. To do that, Misawa gave lots of screen time to the juniors and gave them as much creative freedom as they needed. He also gave the division legitimacy by establishing both a singles junior heavyweight/cruiserweight title and a set of tag titles as well. For the latter, he booked a single-elimination tournament to crown inaugural champions. By June 2003, two teams were left.
On one side were the New Japan outsiders Jushin Liger and Takehiro Murahama. Everyone has heard of Liger so he needs no introduction. As for Murahama, all I was able to find about him was that he was one of Inoki’s many shootfighters-turned-wrestlers that tried to survive his failed Inokism crossover experiment that nearly killed his company.
On the other side were the NOAH representatives KENTA and Marufuji. Most readers might recognize KENTA from his WWE stint as Hideo Itami, his matches in Ring of Honor, and from his more recent work in New Japan.
Marufuji, on the other hand, earned an introduction.
I can’t overstate how influential this man is on the modern wrestling landscape, for better or worse. Throughout the 2000s, Marufuji was absolutely tearing it up as a junior. He was incredibly creative with his moves and hit things so smoothly and gracefully. The video below only scratches the surface of how many wrestlers tribute/steal from/rip off Marufuji:
In simpler terms, there’s a very good chance that your favorite wrestler active today has borrowed one move or another from Naomichi Marufuji’s seemingly-bottomless arsenal.
So here they were, two high-profile tag teams, competing in a tournament finals match to crown first-ever champions. And while the native NOAH wrestlers were the odds-on favorites, it wasn’t that easy dismissing their opponents. Murahama was an Inoki MMA guy and MMA was taking Japan by storm at the time. Even though he was leagues underneath everyone else in terms of pro-wrestling skill, his MMA and kickboxing skills more than made up for those shortcomings. And of course, there was his partner, Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger, whose name literally translates as “Beast God of Thunder Liger”. Not only was his name badass, but he was widely considered THE ace of all cruiserweights in Japan and possibly beyond. Only Rey Mysterio (Jr.) could make a compelling argument as the greatest cruiserweight in modern times.
Not only that, but there was the larger NOAH vs. New Japan war going on at the time. Since 2001, the juniors of both companies had been deadlocked in something of a never-ending war over who was better. That war led to many crosspromotiional matches, most of which involved Liger in some way.
So with all of those factors at play, could Marufuji and KENTA win and represent NOAH properly? Or would Liger and Murahama embarrass NOAH on their home turf and takes those coveted titled over to New Japan and rub it in NOAH’s (and its fans’) faces?
This match originally took place on June 16th, 2003. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. The winners of this match will be crowed inaugural GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag team champions
KENTA and Murahama start off with a kickboxing exchange that ends with Murahama hitting a capture suplex. KENTA fights out and after a stand-off he pulls a Kawada and boots Liger on the apron. An enraged Liger rushes in but the ref keeps them separated. Murahama takes advantage with some more kickboxing and a snapmare/spine punt combo. But that only angers KENTA, who stiffs Murahama with some slaps. Both guys trade stiff strikes until Liger tags in. Liger sends KENTA into his corner and dares Marufuji to tag in. Marufuji does. He and Liger have a solid cruiserweight exchange that ends with Liger surprising Marufuji with a brutal Shotei palm thrust and a baseball slide dropkick. Marufuji tensely returns to the ring and is met with a kick from Liger. Liger throws Marufuji into Murahama’s foot and tags him in. Murahama hits a kick combo that ends in a rolling thrust kick to the gut that looks like it hurts badly. I guess this is where Marufuji got those moves from as he’d incorporate those into his own arsenal later on.
Murahama lands a scoop slam and applies a standing heel hook but Marufuji counters with an enzujigiri. After a stand-off, Marufuji wins a head-butt exchange, slams Murahama, and tags KENTA. KENTA brutalizes Murahama with stiff kicks and stomps but Murahama responds in kind. Except KENTA tanks Murahama’s kicks like a boss and hits back even harder. Murahama tries the capture suplex counter that he landed earlier but this time KENTA blocks that so Murahama single legs him and tags Liger. Liger and Murahama to a double leg stretch and Liger punishes KENTA with corner chops and stomps. Murahama tags back in and hits a double shoulderblock alongside Liger. He applies a grounded crossface chickenwing and then switches to a Fujiwara armbar but KENTA gets a ropebreak with his foot.
At the five-minute mark, Murahama lands more stiff kicks but KENTA fires back and dumps him to the floor. KENTA misses a plancha but lands on his feet and hands another kickboxing exchange with Murahama. Marufuji comes in and attacks Liger on the apron as KENTA lands a dive onto Murahama. As KENTA and Murahama recover on the floor, Marufuji superkicks Liger over the barricade and then pulls it forward. Marufuji jumps onto the top rope and hits a picture-perfect quebrada onto Liger! Crazy move.
In the ring, KENTA pins Murahama for a two-count and then locks in a Figure-4 neck lock. Marufuji tags in and holds Murahama in the tree of woe as KENTA roundhouse kicks Murahama’s stomach. Marufuji follows with a double-springboard dropkick that gets a one-count and then lands a scoop slam/running frog splash combo for a two-count. Marufuji applies a chinlock but Murahama gets a ropebreak with his foot. Murahama tries hitting back but Marufuji takes him down with one of the smoothest take-downs I’ve ever seen. Murahama gets a ropebreak to stop another chinlock so Marufuji knocks Liger off the apron and tags KENTA. KENTA foot chokes Murahama and then lands a slingshot leg drop for a two-count. He applies a particularly painful-looking chinlock that looks more like a chokehold but again Murahama gets a ropebreak. KENTA shoots Murahama into the ropes but Murahama holds on and dumps KENTA onto the apron. He elbows KENTA to the floor and then lands a suicide dive onto KENTA. Marufuji tries cheap-shotting Murahama but he reverses an Irish whip and sends Marufuji into the barricade.
In the ring, Murahama slams KENTA and then tags Liger, who lands a frog splash for a two-count. Liger follows with a NASTY snap powerbomb for another two-count but the ref checks on KENTA to see if he can continue. Liger hit that powerbomb so well it looks like it gave KENTA whiplash, or a concussion, or both. As soon as he sees KENTA moving, Liger applies the surfboard/Romero special into a dragon sleeper and Murahama attacks Marufuji. Marufuji sneaks back in and dropkicks Liger’s head but Liger doesn’t give a f**k and locks KENTA in a camel clutch. This time the ref does se Marufuji coming in and holds him back as Murahama kicks KENTA’s exposed chest and collar as Liger arches the camel clutch to make it as painful as humanly possible.
Murahama tags in and hits stereo knee crushers alongside Liger. He works over KENTA’s leg until KENTA gets a ropebreak. KENTA tries blocking a Figure-4 leg lock from being applied fully but when that fails he rolls to the ropes to break that hold. Liger tags in and hits forearms to the small of KENTA’s back as Murahama kicks him from the apron. Liger applies an abdominal stretch and then rolls into a cradle pin but Marufuji breaks it up by stomping Liger. That angers Liger and he throws Marufuji outside and Murahama tags back in. the ref checks on KENTA again after Murahama kicks him once to see if he can continue. Liger shoves KENTA away from the ropes and into Murahama so that Murahama can hit more stiff kicks to KENTA’s gut. Murahama charges to the ropes but KENTA lands a huge thrust kick to Murahama’s head. The two engage in another shoot-style kick exchange and both go down. Both guys crawl to their respective corners but Ligers tags in first and knocks Marufuji off the apron. He sends KENTA into his corner and lands a huge running shotei palm thrust. He follows with an Irish whip into a Fisherman Buster but KENTA kicks out at 2.6. The two wrestlers trade rear waistlocks and Liger elbows KENTA into a corner. KENTA blocks a charge and hits a tornado hotshot onto the top rope. Then he springboards from the apron, hits a dropkick, and tags Marufuji. Marufuji and Liger trade drop toeholds and Liger avoids a basement dropkick and lands another shotei. Once again the ref checks to see if a wrestler is knocked out/can continue and Marufuji starts moving. He reverses a corner whip and hits a big elbow splash into the corner. Liger blocks a super Frankensteiner and dives but Marufuji dropkicks him in midair. Marufuji goes for a big dive…but Liger catches him and powerbombs him out of midair! Awesome counter by Liger. Murahama knocks KENTA off the apron and keeps him out of the ring. Ligerbomb! One…two…thr – Marufuji narrowly survives! Liger signals the end. Sheerdrop Brainbuster! Followed by a second one immediately afterwards. One, two, and – NO, KENTA escapes Murahama and saves his partner. Fans scream in joy as the match continues!
Murahama dumps KENTA back out as Liger lifts Marufuji onto the top rope. Liger goes for an avalanche Fisherman Buster. Marufuji lands on his feet and hits a superkick. Liger tanks it and lands another shotei. Both wrestlers collapse and then roll to their respective corners. Murahama and KENTA attack each other like men possessed. Murahama goes for a wheel kick but KENTA powerbombs him out of midair. KENTA hits a brutal strike combo but only gets a two-count. Fisherman Buster. Murahama kicks out again. KENTA tries another martial arts rush but Murahama ducks and hits stiff shots of his own. Both men collapse. Brainbuster by Murahama. KENTA kicks out. Rear waistlock exchanges end in a bridging German suplex by Murahama that gets another two-count. Murahama lands more stiff kicks and then lands a shoulder armbreaker into a judo arm toss. Then Murahama locks in a kimura lock! The crowd’s going nuts as KENTA tries surviving or escaping and Marufuji tries fighting past Liger. KENTA somehow pulls himself backwards to the ropes as everyone sags down from exhaustion.
Murahama kicks KENTA’s now-weakened arm but KENTA tanks them and hits a dragon screw leg whip. Marufuji tags in and lands a corner kneelift. He places Murahama in the tree of woe and knocks Liger down on a charge but not off. Marufuji goes for a coast-to-coast dropkick but Liger hits a rolling koppu kick to stop him. Liger sees KENTA rushing in and goes for a shotei. But KENTA ducks and hits a shotei of his own. Murahama escapes the tree of woe and wheel kicks KENTA. Marufuji comes in and superkicks Murahama. Murahama blocks a snuranui from Marufuji but Marufuji boots him in the head on a charge. Murahama ducks a clothesline and hits two kicks to Marufuji’s head. He covers but KENTA saves Marufuji. Both Murahama and Liger send KENTA into the ropes but KENTA blocks their double-team attack. He roundhouse kicks Murahama’s head off and hits a martial arts rush on Liger. Then KENTA hits the Busaiku knee strike on Liger. Liger’s sent to the floor as Marufuji superkicks Murahama. Doomsday Buaiku knee by Marufuji & KENTA. One, two, Liger makes the save. KENTA kicks Liger to the floor one more time as Marufuji slams Murahama. Then Marufuji goes to the top rope. Shooting star press! One, two…and THREE! There’s the match! New champions have been crowned!
Winners and Inaugural GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions after 24:27: KENTA & Naomichi Marufuji
You just can’t go wrong with these older matches from peak NOAH. This was fantastic, high-octane action. It was both exciting and serious. It had it all: intense action, a passionate and engaged crowd, great near-falls that were mostly believable, awesome reversals, and a solid story that was easy to understand and follow despite the language barrier. It definitely lived up to the hype. I can see why Marufuji and KENTA were praised as the best tag team in the world in 2003 and 2004 when they were wrestling like they did here.
Each wrestler had a role to play and did so perfectly. Murahama was the straight-laced martial artist that hit hard and brought an MMA influence to the match. He was needed here to give both Marufuji and KENTA more credibility. By surviving his punishing strikes and surviving his submission holds, both of them looked stronger and believable as superstar athletes, in spite of their small statures. At one point, he kicked Marufuji in the gut so hard he must’ve thought to himself ‘I’m stealing this for myself’.
Liger was the cruiserweight legend that had seen it all and used his veteran experience to act as a difficult mountain for the NOAH guys (but especially Marufuji) to overcome. He stopped Marufuji’s early flippy stuff with a simple shotei to show that he meant business and wasn’t interested in letting Marufuji fly around. He had this ‘did that little punk just try that crap on me?’ vibe and had the aura of a superstar. Everyone else in the match felt like a big deal simply by sharing the ring with him.
KENTA was basically Murahama but with personality. He was like Toshiaki Kawada from the 1990s with his surprise attacks, brutal strikes and utter remorselessness. The way he blurred the line between professional wrestling and full-on I-hate-you-and-want-you-to-die-by-my-hand striking was really fun to watch. That said, his selling was a bit inconsistent, though. On one hand he sold Liger’s snap powerbomb like he was seriously hurt in order to show that Liger meant business and was still a threat even though he wasn’t flying anymore. On the other hand, a lot of the submission work and punishment he endured early on as the face-in-peril was largely forgotten by the end.
Lastly, Marufuji was the future cruiserweight ace here. His job was to show off his artistry and technical skill with all his clever moves and cleverer counters. And as an added storytelling device/middle finger to Liger, he won the match with Liger’s patented shooting star press. But he wasn’t just a one-trick pony style of cruiserweight that only did flips and dives. Marufuji was multifaceted here: he flew, he grappled, he tried submission holds, and he hit hard (though not as hard as KENTA). And he didn’t do anything too unrealistic or focus too much on one approach. This might’ve been a cruiserweight/juniors match, but Marufuji excelled in pretty much every aspect of being a top pro-wrestler regardless of weight class.
Where the match also excelled was blending flash with realism. Yes, the match was filled with surreal dives and crazy junior heavyweight action. But there were also moments of seriousness and realism that complemented that flash as well. When Liger hit that nasty snap powerbomb on KENTA and the ref had to check on him, it didn’t hurt the match that the action just stopped. There was a sense of real concern and a sense of legitimacy in what Liger had just done. And this wasn’t like stopping a match for minutes to wipe up some blood; this was maybe thirty seconds of great selling from KLENTA and great work from the ref to sell the idea that KENTA was in real danger. Did it cheapen the very real threat of concussions? No; on the contrary, it underscored how concussions and whiplash are very real threats in any match and how determined these wrestlers are to keep fighting even if such an injury comes about.
But most importantly, both teams understood the gimmick of the tag match. It was more difficult for both sides to hit their ‘signature moves’ because there were additional wrestlers in the match. Moves were stopped and spots were stopped because both sides knew exactly when to interfere to save their partners. Both sides took advantage of the rules to execute solid double-team moves that built heat and weakened the opposing side. Almost every sequence and spot had a purpose here which was to gradually build heat until the blistering and explosive closing stretch began.
Once Marufuji began his second exchange with Liger, things reached a fever pitch. The near-fall exchange was white hot; not just because they threw bombs at each other, but because there was another struggle happening by the ropes or at ringside between the non-legal wrestlers trying to escape each other to save their partners. It was nuts. These guys had near-perfect timing. They knew how to break up pins without the break-up looking foreseeable. That is one of the hardest things to do these days. Keeping fans guessing down to the last second really makes a match more unpredictable, more exciting, and therefore more worth watching.
Final Rating: ****3/4
These 2000s NOAH junior/smaller guy matches are significantly better than most of the stuff to come afterwards. Why? Because they come across as more realistic, competitive, and combat-focused. Yes, there was plenty of surrealism and a lack of 100% airtight logic here. But it was less of a problem than in other matches because those moments were counterbalanced with plenty of hard-hitting action, MMA-like strike exchanges, and a sense of danger and real risk and expert selling.
At the end of the day, pro wrestling is about telling a story in the ring and making the unbelievable believable. What these four men did here was something great. They had a competitive fight that looked real in some ways while really showing off some unbelievable things in one match. And those two ideas didn’t contrast or hurt one another; instead, they came together in one of the most fun ‘smaller guy’ tag matches in years, possibly decades.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.