Few companies understand the notion that wrestling is cyclical better than New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) and the people that wrestled during its downward spiral like Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Jun Akiyama.
As I write this, NJPW has entered somewhat of a cold period. Despite having a roster filled with top-tier talent, interest in the company isn’t what it used to be, especially from abroad. Before AEW came along, NJPW was considered the world’s second-biggest wrestling promotion and it was the one many fans seeking an alternative to WWE would gravitate towards.
That international market translated into a resurgence in popularity for the company and for a time it was said to be putting on the best wrestling matches of the year, consistently, for almost an entire decade.
Yet here we are in 2023 and NJPW has fallen off the radar for many fans, with much of its attention coming from its partnership with AEW. But NJPW’s slowdown in 2023 isn’t a new phenomenon; the company experienced something similar twenty years earlier as it tried to fight off both internal chaos and the growing popularity of MMA. That led to a working relationship with other companies and attempts at building new stars. But did both of those things translate into long-term success? Perhaps this match will let us know whether or not they did.
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 2003 G1 was another attempt at reinventing the wheel as the format was somewhat different from previous and subsequent editions. Twelve wrestlers were divided into two blocks and faced each other in round-robin format. But instead of the highest-scoring wrestlers from each block facing off in the finals, NJPW booked something different in ’03.
After the scores were tallied, a few more matches were booked. Yuji Nagata and Katsuyori Shibata, who were tied for second place in the B-Block, had a five-minute match that saw Nagata knock Shibata out in just over four minutes. Then Nagata faced A-Block first place wrestler (and his close friend/mentor/fellow Exploder enthusiast) Jun Akiyama and lost. Meanwhile, A-Block’s second place wrestler Tenzan fought B-Block’s first place wrestler Yoshihiro Takayama and won. With those results, the finals of the tournament would be the two best wrestlers from A-Block instead of the best one from both blocks.
I guess NJPW booked themselves into a corner when Akiyama and Takayama – a NOAH mainstay and a freelancer – were top in their respective blocks. It’s kind of funny that, since wrestling is predetermined, that such a glaring booking mistake could happen, but it did.
It may not have made sense, but NJPW hoped that the in-ring action would compensate for the questionable creative direction. Considering that one of the men was Jun Akiyama – who had standout matches here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here – would be able to make Tenzan into the kind of star that could carry the company into the future. But did he manage to do that?
This match originally took place on August 17, 2003 in the finals of that year’s G1 Climax. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
They lock-up and Tenzan gets a clean break on the ropes. Akiyama gets the same moments later and then gets a headlock going. Tenzan escapes and both men stay standing on some shoulderblock spots. Tenzan demands a test of strength and the crowd chants for Tenzan as he wrenches Akiyama’s hands as much as possible to make this into something more exciting. Tenzan wins the exchange, Akiyama reverses an Irish whip, Tenzan blocks a jumping knee, and then he drops Akiyama with another shoulderblock.
Tenzan wrestles Akiyama to the mat and pulls on his face. Akiyama gets mad and then the two of them trade head-butts. Tenzan wins that exchange and then switches to Mongolian chops. Akiyama tries blocking and hitting back but Tenzan drops him again, much to the crowd’s delight. Tenzan out-strikes Akiyama from several different angles and then hits a vertical suplex for a two-count. Tenzan sends Akiyama into a corner but Akiyama gets a boot up and hits two jumping knees. Akiyama follows with another jumping knee from the apron to the floor that sends Tenzan flying into the barricade.
Tenzan returns to the ring but Akiyama goes after him right away with a guillotine kneedrop to the back of his neck. The crowd starts booing Akiyama but he doesn’t care and he builds on the heat with a leg drop onto Tenzan as Tenzan re-enters through the ropes. Akiyama traps Tenzan in a Figure-4 neck lock for a long time until Tenzan rolls to the ropes. He follows that with a DDT and then some kneedrops to Tenzan’s neck, including one with his kneepad pulled down. Akiyama hits more strikes but Tenzan starts hulking up…until Akiyama shuts him down with an elbow to the neck.
Akiyama lands more shots to Tenzan’s neck and follows with a big piledriver for a two-count. He tosses Tenzan onto the apron and teases a DDT there but Tenzan resists. Tenzan shoves Akiyama back and Akiyama charges…and runs into a one-shoulder Mountain Bomb! But Akiyama takes a nasty landing that sees him land face-first on the apron!
Back in the ring, Tenzan lands a flurry of head-butts, including one to Akiyama’s gut. Tenzan works over Akiyama’s midsection with stomps and a backbreaker, followed by three falling head-butts. Akiyama bails to ringside and then Tenzan cuts him off as he tries returning to the ring. Both men fight for control for an over-the-rope suplex spot until Tenzan wins and suplexes Akiyama into the ring. Tenzan gets a two-count and then drops some knees into Akiyama’s ribs. He follows with an unusual-looking chinlock variation and then switches to a type of cobra twist, and after that into a half crab.
Akiyama gets a ropebreak so Tenzan stomps on his chest and stands on his throat. Tenzan follows with a falling head-butt to the groin which doesn’t lead to a DQ for some reason. Tenzan follows with a leg drop for a two-count and then lands more random strikes as the twenty-minute mark passes. Tenzan lands a second-rope head-butt to Akiyama’s ribs but only manages another two-count. Tenzan goes back to the turnbuckle but Akiyama counters with a powerbomb. Akiyama follows with a running kneelift but only gets a two-count. A corner jumping knee/Exploder suplex combo also gets a two-count. The crowd is now split between both wrestlers as Akiyama goes for a DDT but Tenzan counters into an overhead suplex. Akiyama charges again but runs into a lariat. Tenzan covers for a two-count and then locks in the Buffalo Sleeper. Akiyama pulls himself towards the ropes but Tenzan pulls him away and applies a bodyscissor in the middle of the ring. But despite a long struggle with lots of tightening and wrenching, Akiyama does manage to reach the ropes with his feet.
Tenzan lands more corner strikes to Akiyama’s chest and neck and then lands a diving facebuster for a two-count. He follows with a fireman’s carry gutbuster/diving moonsault combo but only manages another two-count. The crowd fires up again as Tenzan signals the end. Tenzan goes for a side slam but Akiyama counters into another Exploder. Tenzan charges but Akiyama lands another Exploder. Both men collapse.
Tenzan crawls to a corner but Akiyama hits him with a running knee strike for another close two-count. Akiyama locks in his King Crab lock/guillotine choke and Tenzan’s body relaxes as if he’s out. Akiyama covers but only gets two. Diving forearm to the back of Tenzan’s head. Tenzan resists a standard Exploder so Akiyama switches to his stronger wrist-clutch variant. The referee counts one…two…th – no, Tenzan gets his foot on the rope. Akiyama tries another Exploder but Tenzan counters with a high-angle Backdrop suplex. Both men struggle to their feet. Akiyama charges but Tenzan hits him with a leg-hook Angle Slam/Saito Suplex. Tenzan follows with a diving head-butt for another close two-count.
Thirty minutes have passed as both men trade standing strikes. Tenzan hits more Mongolian chops, Akiyama hits back with a big boot, and Tenzan drops him with another lariat for a two-count. Another strike exchange ensues and Tenzan wins and hits a scoop Tombstone Piledriver. One, two, Akiyama survives. Tenzan locks in the Anaconda Vise complete with side slam while the hold is locked in. Akiyama gives up only seconds in. the crowd pops with some fans jumping out of their seats for Tenzan’s victory!
Winner of the 2003 G1 Climax after 31:43: Hiroyoshi Tenzan
This was a great match. It was exactly what one would expect of main-event New Japan: hard-hitting, tense, sports-like, and realistic. Even though the lead-up to this match was questionable, this match’s booking was largely flawless as it was the perfect way for Tenzan to be elevated to main-event status. He wasn’t the most dynamic of wrestlers but he knew exactly how to play to the crowd and give them a reason to invest their time, money, and emotions into the match. That left Akiyama to do much of the other hard work here and he more than filled in any gaps in Tenzan’s game plan. He more than exceled at his job here: the way he targeted Tenzan’s neck and acted with such blatant disregard for New Japan’s chosen local hero made this into far more than the typical respectful sports display. This actually had passion from the crowd which led to reactions typically seen and heard on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean. The result was a sound and exciting match, though it was also a bit underwhelming one as well.
Despite being a popular and more than capable wrestler, I found Tenzan to be quite uninspiring here. pretty much everything he did was textbook here, though a lot of what he did lacked focus and direction. He just landed big moves haphazardly and did more to play to the crowd than do anything truly compelling. A big part of his success came from Akiyama selling like crazy for him in order to make him look good. Akiyama reacted to so many shots to the ribs and sternum like he was genuinely winded and even the slightest brush on his ribcage made him squirm like one of the guys from Jackass who hurt themselves for real on a stunt gone wrong.
And while much of the action was technically strong and not necessarily flawed, it was hampered by predictable booking. All the great wrestling in the world couldn’t remove the writing that was on the wall: there was no way that Akiyama, a NOAH guy, was winning NJPW’s G1. Even though he had already appeared on NJPW’s January 4th Dome Show at least once and both companies were working together closely at the time, a non-contracted G1 winner was simply out of the question. As a result, this was less a question of whether Akiyama could win and more of a question of how impressive Tenzan would be against a man many people considered to be a far superior wrestler.
Final Rating: ****1/4
Despite a predictable finish, this match was still solid enough to watch at least once. The action was solid in spite of its predictable direction. The crowd was FAR more animated and vocal than what was typical of 1990s and 2000s New Japan. The match had a simple story of Tenzan defending his company from this outsider who suplexed his way into a tournament final only to be tapped out by a guy who had a more fearsome submission finisher.
And while Akiyama lost here, he still looked somewhat strong in defeat as Tenzan had to hit anything and everything to put him down. Akiyama looked strong in defeat, Tenzan got a huge win, and New Japan’s fans got to see their boy win and protect the promotion’s integrity from an outside invader. Everyone got something out of this, and that doesn’t always happen in wrestling.