(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Jay White – New Japan BOSJ XXVI (2019)
With there being so much attention on Jay White of late, I think it would be a good idea to look at what he’s capable of.
After losing a loser Leaves New Japan match last month, Jay White has been a free agent. He hasn’t wrestled anywhere in over a month and rumors continue to circulate that he could sign with either WWE or AEW.
If either of those things happens, White will enter a company as a largely unknown character. No disrespect to New Japan, but their presence is much smaller compared to WWE and there are some AEW fans that just don’t care about the New Japan connection.
Some people might not know anything about him once he does debut, so let’s take a look at what is considered one of his best matches to see what he’s capable of.
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.
At G1 Supercard, Zack Sabre Jr. used one of his many lethal submission holds on Tanahashi until he tore Tanahashi’s elbow. Tanahashi went and for surgery on it, and when he came back he vowed to regain the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Except he couldn’t just make that declaration without expecting some resistance, which in this case came in the form of Jay White, who said that Tanahashi was at the back of the line when it came to title shots.
This was Tanahashi’s first match after a two-month hiatus due to injury. And while that doesn’t sound like much, it began to shatter Tanahashi’s image as the unstoppable ace with an impenetrable suit of armor. He spent years fighting against Father Time and seemed to be impervious to all the ill effects that wrestling took on him. But now he started getting injured more and taking more time off and many diehard fans struggled to accept the idea that the Ace was about to be humbled by reality.
Tanahashi needed to win here, but so too did White. Like Tanahashi, he had an interesting six months. He beat Kazuchika Okada in a non-title singles match at Wrestle Kingdom 13 and a month later ended Tanahashi’s reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. But White lost it to Okada a month and a half later and now he needed to bounce back as well.
He defeated the Ace once; could he do so again?
This match originally took place on June 5th, 2019, on the same night as Jon Moxley’s match with Juice Robinson and this famous Ospreay vs. Takagi match. This was rated **** out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
White rushes Tanahashi during his entrance which gets loud boos from the crowd. He dumps Tanahashi to the floor but Tana hits back with forearms. White’s manager Gedo interferes, which allows White to distract Tanahashi and send him into the barricade. Back in the ring, White hits a running corner uppercut and then stands on Tanahashi’s wrist with one foot. He uses his other foot to stomp on Tanahashi’s injured elbow but then Tanahashi fights back with forearms (using his healthy right arm). Tanahashi goes for an Irish whip but White holds onto the ropes and the strain from that pull hurts Tanahashi’s arm. Finally, logic and common sense in a wrestling match. Tanahashi rushes White but White ducks and dumps him to the floor.
White drives Tanahashi back-first into the barricade and then the edge of the ring apron. He hammerlocks Tanahashi and drives him bad arm-first into those same hard surfaces and then breaks the ref’s count so that he can inflict more punishment. He drives Tanahashi bad arm-first into a ringpost and then throws the referee from the ring to stop his count and continue attacking Tana’s arm. He wraps it through the barricade as the referee gets up. Tanahashi makes it to the ring eventually and White hits taunting kicks to the arm. The crowd chanting Tanahashi’s name fires him up as he hits more forearms. He goes for an Irish whip but White counters with an arm wringer for a two-count. He chops Tanahashi in a corner and hits another bevy of arm-targeting attacks. Tanahashi’s forced to use the bad arm to elbow out of a Saito suplex but White follows up with a hammerlock Saito suplex for a two-count. White pulls off Tanahashi’s wrist tape, elbow pad, and anything else he has on his arm to expose the bad arm completely. The crowd boos as White hits a big forearm to Tanahashi’s weakened elbow as Tanahashi writhes in pain.
White continues with hammerlocks and arm-targeting moves but Tanahashi still fights back with forearms. He tries another Irish whip but again he can’t do it without hurting himself. White goes to capitalize, but this time Tanahashi catches him with a dragon screw leg whip. Tanahashi gets a few seconds to recover and then hits more forearms. White reverses a corner whip but Tanahashi bounces out with a shotgun dropkick to White’s knee. Tanahashi hits a second-rope somersault senton for a two-count and charges for a slingblade. White hits first with a chop to the chest but Tanahashi tanks it and lands a strike barrage. White blocks another slingblade and the two counter each other back-and-forth, over and over, until White lands a reverse STO and a deadlift German suplex. White lands a Death Valley Bomb and gets a two-count. He appears to weaken his knee in the process so he slows things down with a chinlock. He goes for a sleeper suplex but Tanahashi escapes, only for White to hit the bad arm. Tanahashi charges…and runs into an uranage. One, two, Tanahashi kicks out.
White goes for a Kiwi Crusher but Tanahashi counters with two twisting neckbreakers. He tries a third but White collapses. Tanahashi pulls him to knees and slaps him hard in the face. Tanahashi tries that third neckbreaker again. White counters with a Fujiwara armbar. Tanahashi squirms like crazy, desperately trying to escape. And just when it looks like Tanahashi might reach a set of ropes, White switches to the other side while still maintaining control over the arm. White increases the pressure as Tanahashi faces a very real possibility of losing via referee stoppage. White wrenches Tanahashi’s arm over and over, as if trying to pull the whole arm out of its socket. But somehow, somehow, Tanahashi gets to the ropes with his feet, forcing a break.
Tanahashi grabs the ropes to escape a suplex but White attacks the arm to break his grasp. Tanahashi tries firing back and even hits a slap with his left arm. He catches White’s leg for another dragon screw but White hits elbows to stop him. And yet, Tanahashi still lands the dragon screw, but he has to use his legs to do some of the pulling. Tanahashi really is that clever. Tanahashi charges for a slingblade. White goes to counter into a Blade Runner. Tanahashi counters back with not one but two successful slingblades. One, two, White kicks out. Tanahashi goes for the High Fly Flow. Gedo jumps onto the apron and distracts Tanahashi long enough for White to get to his feet and cut Tana off. White goes for Blade Runner again. Tanahashi counters with a bridging straightjacket German suplex for a two-count.
Tanahashi tries a dragon suplex. Gedo comes in with brass knuckles but Tanahashi punches him out. The ref gets distracted by Gedo long enough for White to hit a low blow. White goes for the Blade Runner again. Tanahashi escapes and lands a low blow of his own and rolls White up. One, two, no, White kicks out. Modified dragon screw. Tanahashi goes for the Texas cloverleaf. White pulls Tana in by his bad arm and covers him. One, two, and three! White beats Tanahashi!
Winner after 19:16: Jay White
This was excellent. Both White and Tanahashi were perfect in their roles here as the clever, unrelenting villain and the sympathetic and never-say-die babyface, respectively. White was far more entertaining here than he usually is when he does his typical slimy Bullet Club shtick. There should be more matches like this one in other wrestling companies. It was one of Jay White’s best matches because he did something that is so unfortunately rare in today’s wrestling landscape: he attacked a weakened body part from bell to bell. It was so refreshing to see wrestlers treat their audiences with respect by wrestling a match smartly and, in White’s case, viscerally. While it wouldn’t be fair to call this some kind of historically great epic, this is still a must-see match.
Technically, everything I wrote in the story section above wasn’t really necessary because White and Tanahashi did an amazing job of setting up and telling their story without needing extra context. Tanahashi was the ace with a bad arm and White was the villain that needed an easy route to victory. Even if you have no idea who these two wrestlers are, the match was still engaging, exciting, and easy to follow because limbwork never fails as a plot point in wrestling storytelling.
And while White more than earned credit for staying true to his strategy down to the very last second, Tanahashi also deserves extra credit for going the extra mile to sell for his opponent. Something as basic as the Irish whip, the most common move in wrestling besides maybe the forearm or the lock-up, was challenging for Tanahashi because he was fighting with a weakened arm. Not only that, but Tanahashi couldn’t even land his signature dragon screw leg whip normally because his arm was weak, so he had to use his legs to complete the move. Not only did that made it harder for Tanahashi to go on offense, but it underscored how vulnerable he was and how damaging any attacks to that body part would be. By zeroing in on that limb, White bridged the gulf between himself and Tanahashi. Tanahashi’s aura of main-event imperviousness didn’t exist here. He didn’t have the wrestling equivalent of ‘plot armor’, which made the match more exciting. White actually stood a chance since Tanahashi wasn’t dealing with a full deck.
In many ways, this was a great template match. The hero is vulnerable as he gets attacked from behind by an underhanded villain. The villain exploits the hero’s key weakness to the point that the hero can’t even fight back at first. It takes a monumental effort (and lots of support from the fans) for the hero to rally back and start his comeback. But this isn’t a fairytale with good always triumphing over evil. In this case, White won by fighting dirty and exploiting Tanahashi’s weakness to the very end. And yet, this match ended in a way that gave fans a reason to tune in again. What if Tanahashi was healthier? What if Gedo wasn’t able to interfere? What if Tanahashi managed to escape that last-second clutch and lock in the Texas cloverleaf on White? All of these questions gave fans a reason to want to see these two wrestle again. And while it would be two years before another singles match between Jay White and Hiroshi Tanahashi, White accomplished enough here to elevate himself to Tanahashi’s level without hurting Tanahashi’s image or reputation.
Final Rating: ****1/2
Matches with nonstop frenetic action are fine in wrestling; but matches with depth, nuance, and a gradual build to an exciting finish are better. This is the kind of match that makes both the wrestlers and their craft look credible, challenging, difficult, realistic, and serious. Aside from White’s gloating, very little here looked phony, stagey, or overly theatrical. It came across as a serious performance while still having both entertaining action and an entertaining story. It was an all-around winner of a match.
This match would’ve been a bit better if Tanahashi actually tapped out or passed out to truly underscore how ruthless Jay White was, but at this point that’s just nitpicking. The weakened arm was an important piece of the match from start to finish, which is the most important thing when it comes to doing limbwork successfully in wrestling. There was also Jay White’s selling of Tanahashi’s (limited) offense, which was far beneath Tanahashi’s selling of White’s offense. White took two dragon screws and a dropkick to his knee, both of which were more or less full power attacks coming from Tanahashi. And yet, White barely sold or made them into anything important. he still hit power moves and didn’t really seem any worse for wear. I get that the match was to be about Tanahashi’s arm, but White could’ve done a better job of creating more false hope by actually making people believe Tanahashi was making any sort of progress.
That aside, the match accomplished its goal, which was to give White an important win and put Tanahashi in an underdog position by making him lose his first match. It was good storytelling 101: Tanahashi had such a stellar reputation as this nigh-unstoppable god of wrestling yet he lost here and had something to overcome. It was a refreshing change of scenery for him, especially after years of being at the very top cycling through one challenger after another.
This is a surprisingly great match and I cannot recommend it enough.
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.