Features

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: KENTA & Marufuji vs. Sugiura & Kanemaru – NOAH June 5th, 2005

hideo itami kenta

Do you like the modern wrestling style? Are you a fan of fast-paced action, explosive bursts, hard-hitting strikes, and escalating craziness that makes wrestlers seem more like video game characters? If so, have you ever wondered who you should thank for creating/popularizing this style?

Well look no further than KENTA and Naomichi Marufuji.

Almost every wrestler to make it big over the past decade was inspired by these two greats in one way or another. From their incredible speed and agility in the ring to the moves they created, they were so far ahead of their time during the 2000s. They set new standards for tandem offense and did some of the most revolutionary things imaginable at the time. It’s no wonder that wrestlers from The Young Bucks to Daniel Bryan to CM Punk to Brian Kendrick to Will Ospreay all owe something in their in-ring styles to these two Japanese stars.

I’ve reviewed KENTA’s and Marufuji’s matches before and most of them still hold up incredibly well. In fact, one match they’ve had against each other in 2006 is one of the best matches of the entire decade of the 2000s. But how good were they as a team? There’s only one way to find out.

Today we look back at the tag match between KENTA & Marufuji and Sugiura & Kanemaru from NOAH’s Navigation with Breeze show on June 5th, 2005.

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

Pro Wrestling NOAH under Misawa had a different approach from its Baba-influenced All Japan predecessor. Whereas Baba gave little time or energy into its junior heavyweight division, Misawa wanted to push the smaller guys in order to give rival company New Japan a run for its money. Misawa booked NOAH’s junior heavyweights strongly by creating a junior heavyweight title and promoting it heavily. Later on, NOAH created the junior heavyweight tag titles as well to mirror the (regular) heavyweight tag titles. The inaugural champions were KENTA and Marufuji, who won them in a tournament back in 2003. This duo set the bar for junior heavyweight matches (both singles and tags) and defenses incredibly high; to this day, their first reign is both the longest and has the most successful defenses. They took on a wide variety of challengers, and on this night a new duo took a crack at the champions.

The four wrestlers in this match were as follows:

KENTA was the most vicious striker in NOAH because of his little man complex. He knew that he couldn’t really be taken seriously because he was so small (even by Japanese standards), so he compensated by hitting his opponents brutally hard. And sometimes, his opponents got legitimately mad with him, yet he used that to his advantage to make his matches look more realistic and more personal.

Marufuji was the yin to KENTA’s yang. Whereas KENTA’s style was simplistic and practical, Marufuji’s was creative and artistic. He still spammed kicks just like KENTA (superkicks/thrust kicks, to be specific), but he also preferred sprinting around, landing cradles and surprise pins out of nowhere, and coming up with moves that were more about style than effectiveness. This helped his career a lot: his ability to surprise opponents and fans with his innovation made him a huge draw in spite of his small stature and lack of magnetism compared to established heavyweight stars like his mentor Misawa, Akiyama, and Kobashi.

Sugiura can be best described as ‘mini Kurt Angle’. He looked like Angle, had similar (but inferior) amateur credentials as Angle, and adopted Angle’s signature moves. Sugiura was slowly being groomed as another future top guy, similar to how Jun Akiyama was often thrown into the mix with All Japan’s Four Pillars despite starting his career after all of them were already established.

Kanemaru was the reigning and defending GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion at the time, having beaten Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger at NOAH’s Departure 2004 show to bring it back to NOAH. He was considered the ace of NOAH’s junior division, but KENTA had him in his sights and was set to challenge for his singles title at NOAH’s next Dome show, Destiny (which ended up being one hell of an amazing sprint of a match).

The match

This match originally took place on June 5th, 2005. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.

This is for KENTA & Marufuji’s GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships. Marufuji and Kanemaru start things off with a high-speed leapfrog and chain grappling exchange. They trade holds until Kanemaru gains control and tags Sugiura. Marufuji escapes a rear waistlock but Sugiura counters an armlock with an amateur takedown. Sugiura starts softening up Marufuji’s leg for his ankle lock finisher and then goes for his own armlock. Marufuji shows off his flipping skills to escape that armlock but Sugiura counters with a spear. Sugiura hits some elbows but Marufuji counters with a drop toehold and locks Sugiura in place as he tags KENTA. KENTA hits his trademark punishing chest kicks but Sugiura tanks them like a boss and gets to his feet. KENTA slaps him but Sugiura hits back with elbows and an almost shoot-style spinebuster takedown. Kanemaru boots Marufuji off the apron as Sugiura suplexes KENTA onto the top rope and kicks him to the floor. Sugiura teases a gutwrench slam off the apron but KENTA resists. He holds onto Sugiura’s leg for dear life so Sugiura stiffs him with forearms. KENTA hits back with elbows and kicks which distract Sugiura from another incoming threat. Marufuji sunset flips over Sugiura to the floor and goes for a powerbomb. Sugiura resists but KENTA charges and hits a big boot. That allows Marufuji to connect with the powerbomb to the floor. So that’s where Hiromu got that move.

KENTA boots Kanemaru into the steel barricade as the referee makes Marufuji back away from Sugiura so that doctors can check on him. Sugiura makes it so his feet so Marufuji tosses him into the ring where an awaiting KENTA covers him for a two-count. After the ref confirms Sugiura can continue wrestling, KENTA boots Sugiura’s head and sends him into his corner. Sugiura barely makes it over as Marufuji tags in. Marufuji DDT’s Sugiura on the elevated entrance ramp as KENTA dropkicks Kanemaru on the opposite side of the ring. Marufuji covers back in the ring but the ref stops counting when he sees Marufuji’s feet on the ropes. Marufuji switches between a chinlock, a front chancery, and a headscissor hold, all of which target Sugiura’s now-badly-damaged neck. Sugiura kicks out of a pin at two so KENTA tags in and boots Kanemaru to the floor again as Marufuji foot chokes Sugiura in a corner. But Kanemaru has had enough of KENTA’s interference and rushes him, only for that to backfire as KENTA reverses an Irish whip and dropkicks Kanemaru back out. KENTA snapmares Sugiura so that Marufuji can hit a slingshot elbow and then KENTA slingshots into a mocking back kick to Sugiura’s head. KENTA applies a Figure-4 neck lock and Sugiura tries reaching the ropes with his foot. The ref is between him and the ropes and so he doesn’t see Marufuji pushing Sugiura’s foot back with his own. Small details like that are always great.

 

Eventually the referee catches Marufuji’s interference and tells him off as KENTA kicks Sugiura in a corner. Sugiura reverses a corner whip and charges but KENTA boots him. KENTA goes for a diving hurricanrana but Sugiura counters by catching and powerbombing him. Kanemaru takes advantage and pulls KENTA to the floor and whips him into the barricade. He hits a guillotine leg drop onto KENTA and then throws Marufuji into the barricade as well. Sugiura sends KENTA into the barricade and then Kanemaru whips KENTA into Sugiura who hits a big shoulderblock. Marufuji goes after Sugiura but Sugiura reverses a whip and sends Marufuji into a barricade.

Back in the ring, Sugiura slams KENTA and locks him in a camel clutch as Kanemaru hits a running dropkick to KENTA’s face. The challengers switch spots and Sugiura charges the ropes and slaps KENTA hard. Kanemaru tags in and lands a facebuster on KENTA as Sugiura knocks Marufuji to the floor. He follows with his Deep Impact diving DDT and pins but only gets a two-count. KENTA blocks a back body drop with a kick but Kanemaru blocks his follow-up standing dropkick. Kanemaru applies a Boston crab and as KENTA crawls to the ropes Sugiura puts his boots in KENTA’s path to stop him. The ref doesn’t notice at first because he’s distracted by Marufuji, KENTA eventually powers through and gets a ropebreak.

Sugiura tags in and holds KENTA in place as Kanemaru drapes KENTA over the apron and lands a slingshot kneedrop to the back of his head to the outside. Back in the ring, KENTA reverses a suplex and goes to tag Marufuji but Kanemaru pulls him back. Sugiura hits a sick one-shoulder Razor’s Edge for a two-count and suddenly KENTA tries fighting back. He hits elbows on both Sugiura and Kanemaru and it takes several kicks from both of them to shut him down. Kanemaru tags in and lands a slingshot splash for a two-count. He applies a face-stretching camel clutch and then tags Sugiura back in. Sugiura applies a cross armbreaker but Marufuji stomps on him to break it. Kanemaru comes in and lands a Backdrop suplex on Marufuji as Sugiura locks in a kimura lock on KENTA. KENTA gets a ropebreak which gets loud applause from the crowd.

Kanemaru tags in and goes for a back suplex but KENTA lands on his feet and boots Kanemaru from the corner. The two trade stiff strikes until KENTA lands a counter powerslam and tags Marufuji. Marufuji hits both opponents and lands a simultaneous arm drag/dropkick combo on Kanemaru/Sugiura. A dropkick sends Kanemaru to the floor and a superkick sends Sugiura falling over like a tree. Marufuji goes for a quebrada on Kanemaru but Kanemaru drops him onto the apron face-first. Marufuji hits another superkick and pulls the ring barricade forward. Marufuji goes flying over into the crowd with a quebrada and takes Kanemaru with him. At least he didn’t almost kill himself this time.

Kanemaru makes it onto the apron at seventeen and Marufuji tries to suplex him into the ring. the two block each other and trade suplex attempts until Kanemaru lands on his feet behind Marufuji. He charges but runs into a superkick and then Marufuji does a flying armbreaker. Kanemaru tries escaping so Marufuji transitions into a triangle choke. Sugiura breaks it up so Marufuji dropkicks him to the floor. Marufuji hits yet another superkick and goes for the Shiranui. Kanemaru blocks it, Marufuji handstands out of the corner, and Kanemaru hits a gorgeous tilt-a-whirl DDT. Awesome counter.

Sugiura tags in and hits a huge corner spear. He carries Marufuji around the ring but Marufuji lands a sunset flip to escape, only to walk into another spear. The two wrestler trade elbows. Sugiura charges but Marufuji lands a drop toehold. Sugiura avoids his dropkick and does an Oklahoma roll into a cross armbreaker of his own. KENTA stops it so Sugiura throws him out. Sugiura tries another Razor’s Edge but Marufuji escapes. Sugiura escapes a German suplex and charges but KENTA trips him from ringside, which allows Marufuji to land his running dropkick. KENTA tags in and lands a single leg dropkick of his own for a two-count. He lands a kick combo and knocks Kanemaru off the apron. Then he sidesteps to avoid a Sugiura spear and gets a roll-up for a two-count. The force of Sugiura’s kick-out sends KENTA into Kanemaru and helps him hit another elbow. KENTA follows with a springboard dropkick to Sugiura for another close two-count. Sugiura counters a suplex attempt but KENTA lands behind him and charges, only to walk into a big boot from Sugiura. Bridging German suplex. KENTA kicks out. Kanemaru sends Marufuji into the barricade again as Sugiura goes for the Olympic Slam. KENTA lands behind him and hits an enzuigiri. Both wrestlers collapse. Kanemaru tags in first and kicks Marufuji off the apron to block the tag. Kanemaru channels his mentor Kobashi with a scoop slam/diving moonsault combo. One, two, KENTA kicks out. Then he goes for a Brainbuster but KENTA counters into a suplex of his own. KENTA follows with a corner yakuza kick and a butterfly suplex, and then tags Marufuji.

Marufuji hits a corner elbow and goes for an avalanche Frankensteiner but Kanemaru blocks it. Kanemaru dives but Marufuji dropkicks him in midair. Marufuji ties him in the tree of woe as KENTA knocks Sugiura to the floor. Marufuji hits a springboard coast-co-coast dropkick and pins but only manages a two-count. KENTA and Marufuji hit Kanemaru with a falcon arrow/powerbomb combo but Sugiura breaks up the pin. Sugiura and KENTA brawl at ringside as Marufuji goes for a Spanish Fly on the top rope. Kanemaru blocks it but Marufuji lands another superkick. Marufuji tries a superplex. Kanemaru counters with his Deep Impact finisher. One, two, Marufuji kicks out.

Kanemaru sends Marufuji into a corner and hits a clothesline. Sugiura follows with a corner spear and the two challengers drop Marufuji with a diving Snapshot. One, two, KENTA saves Marufuji. Kanemaru drops Marufuji with a Brainbuster. Marufuji kicks out at 2.9. KENTA and Sugiura brawl at ringside as Kanemaru tries another Brainbuster. Marufuji counters this one with an inside cradle for a two-count. Kanemaru teases a superplex. Marufuji blocks it and hits a super Shiranui. Amazing move. both wrestlers collapse…and tag in their respective partners.

KENTA hits first with a high kick and leapfrogs to avoid a spear. Running single leg dropkick. Sugiura kicks out. Martial arts combo followed by a fisherman suplex. Sugiura kicks out again. Sugiura charges, anticipates KENTA’s leapfrog, stops, and then connects with a spear. Sugiura follows with a wheelbarrow facebuster and goes for a German suplex but KENTA starts pulling himself towards Marufuji. Marufuji springboards into a sunset flip which allows KENTA to hit another single leg dropkick. He and KENTA send Sugiura into a corner and they land a big boot/corner elbow splash combo. That’s followed by an awesome powerbomb/Shiranui combination. The referee counts one, two, and Kanemaru makes the save. KENTA lands his signature martial arts rush and charges for his Busaiku knee but Kanemaru hits him first. KENTA kicks him down as Sugiura collapses as well. The champs try to dispose of Kanemaru with the same powerbomb/Shiranui combo but Kanemaru counters Marufuji’s portion with a back suplex. Kanemaru turns around and eats a running kick from KENTA. KENTA hits a now-standing Sugiura with kicks to the head and charges for the Busaiku Knee. But Sugiura counters with a pop-up Olympic Slam! Then he and Kanemaru hit a Dudleyz-style diving powerbomb. One, two, Marufuji saves KENTA. Marufuji superkicks both of them but Sugiura drops him with a spear. Kanemaru hits Marufuji with a Brainbuster and goes for a second one but Marufuji counters that with a Shiranui. Kanemaru and Marufuji fall out of the ring as KENTA and Sugiura brawl. KENTA starts out-striking Sugiura and goes for a high kick. Sugiura counters with a gorgeous snap roll into an ankle lock. KENTA fights hard and makes it to the ropes. Bridging German suplex by Sugiura. He gets a one-count and then rolls over into a bridging dragon suplex. One, two, and thr – no, KENTA kicks out at 2.95. Olympic Slam connects! One, two, and KENTA kicks out yet again. Avalanche Olympic Slam! Sugiura covers as Kanemaru holds Marufuji against the ropes. One, two…and THREE! There’s the match! New champions have been crowned! KENTA & Marufuji’s reign ends after 690 days!

Winners and NEW GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions after 34:51: Takashi Sugiura & Yoshinobu Kanemaru

 

Review

That was an outstanding wrestling match. Those 35 minutes just flew by. All four of these guys put on one of the most exciting spot-fest-style matches in years. But it wasn’t just pure spectacle; it had plenty of tension, story, and psychology as well. And even with some absurdities thrown in here and there, this match was still so incredibly fun to watch.

It was a tale of two different tag teams. Sugiura and Kanemaru were a solid team but KENTA & Marufuji were on another level altogether. They had incredible chemistry and timing. They moved around the ring as if they were of one mind. They always knew where each other was and knew how to work the gimmick of the tag match by helping each other out, even when one of them seemed to be out of the ring or otherwise forgotten. They were so much better at working together than Sugiura and Kanemaru, which makes the challengers’ conquest that much more significant. Sugiura and Kanemaru had to deal with not only the individual quirks of KENTA and Marufuji but also the champs’ combination tactics. Kenta & Marufuji wrestled like a well-oiled machine with their almost flawless tandem offense and ability to isolate Sugiura and Kanemaru from each other. NOAH didn’t really have ‘faces’ and ‘heels’, but KENTA and Marufuji certainly did the work of a heel team by building tension up and making the hot tags more meaningful and exciting.

All four wrestlers gave great examples of what they could do. KENTA was awesome with his smashmouth style. He bullied Sugiura and acted like a d**k to Kanemaru with all his cheap-shots. Sugiura was great as the Angle-like suplex machine and power wrestler. Kanemaru was a typical cruiserweight spot guy that hit big moves and acted more as a supporting actor for Sugiura. And yet, he had flawless timing and got so much out of what little he did (compared to Sugiura). And then there was Marufuji. I swear, this guy is truly an amazing wrestler. Not only was his usual flashy and innovative self with all his crazy spots and lightning-quick counters, but he also did a few small things that showed how smart he is. He went a bit heelish when he blocked Sugiura from reaching the ropes to break up a submission hold. He wasn’t the legal man yet he still managed to impact the action in the ring. He helped KENTA do more damage without having to tag in. In doing so, he garnered more sympathy for Sugiura and made Sugiura’s revenge with a similar spot moments later more satisfying.

And even though the match was around 75% spots and 25% psychology, it was filled with unpredictable twists and turns that made it so compelling. Every time two wrestlers interacted, there was no way of knowing what was going to happen. Nothing could be predicted or telegraphed; any move could be countered, blocked, reversed, or simply no-sold. And even though the match was ‘spotty’, there was still an underlying sense of ‘this is combat’ and not ‘this is performance art’ to it. For all the over-the-top tandem moves and superkicks that were spammed, this match still carried an unmistakable air of competition and big fight feel to it. This was nothing like a modern Will Ospreay or Young Bucks match; there was no over-the-top humor or tongue-in-cheek silliness to it; everything in this match, from the wackiest high-spot to the stiffest strike, looked impactful. Very little was superfluous or unnecessary here; even though the match went a bit long and a few spots were excessive, nothing seemed wasteful. The goal of the match was to show how difficult was in keeping both teams down for the three-count. By the match’s end, all four of them looked like they were nigh indestructible and came across as huge stars.

But the match wasn’t perfect, though. It did get a bit absurd at a few points, though that is to be expected whenever you see KENTA and/or Marufuji in the ring. It was a bit over the top seeing Marufuji hit a quebrada only for Kanemaru to start running around the ring seconds after barely making it into the ring. All four guys moved around at a highly unrealistic pace, which gave the impression that all of them had some kind of miraculous ability to heal and recover so quickly. I know that they were trying to sell the idea that they were inhumanly tough but all of them did go a bit overboard with all those high-impact bombs and finishers landing yet not being enough to end the match. Plus there was an issue with the selling in from all four wrestlers. All those submission holds were applied and made into big deals but by the end they were rendered meaningless. The earlier ones meant nothing and weren’t sold, nor did they really lead to anything. KENTA never sold his arm despite being in a real(istic) kimura lock. Sugiura had his neck worked over badly by Marufuji yet by the closing few minutes he didn’t seem any worse for wear. And I think all four guys got smashed back-first into the barricade yet no one struggled with lifting or running. But again, all those spots meshed well together to create this idea that all four wrestlers were much tougher and better conditioned than their small statures may have suggested.

Final Rating: ****3/4

This is a must-watch cruiserweight match. Over fifteen years have passed and this match still holds up incredibly well. All four of these wrestlers put on one of the most exciting matches in years without it ever getting boring or slow. They all had the right pacing and structured the match almost perfectly. It takes a lot of skill to wrestle at such a frenetic pace for 35 minutes and keep viewers engaged all throughout.

I know some people might compare these guys to more recent wrestlers like the Bucks, Ospreay, or any of the other indy guys that like to ‘dive’ a lot. And while there are plenty of similarities, there’s one important difference as well. These NOAH guys hit crazy high-spots in ways that put the spirit of competition front and center. The more recent guys that copied them did the same things in ways that put self-indulgence and showing off front and center.

Those are two very distinct philosophies and it shows in how well the matches hold up over time. These NOAH matches hold up way better than their American counterparts, especially since the more recent matches are so copy-and-paste that they lose their uniqueness in an overcrowded field of similar wrestlers all trying to do the same style and failing to stand out while doing so.

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.