This is one of the most unusual and unexpected matches of the 21st century: two New Japan legends fighting over All Japan’s world title in an All Japan ring.
The closest American equivalents I can think of in this case would be if Kurt Angle and Steve Austin wrestled on a WCW show for the WCW World Title. One year earlier this match was inconceivable. But wrestling is a strange and unpredictable industry. The expression “never say never” isn’t just some marketing phrase; strange and seemingly impossible things can and do happen in this business all the time.
In this case, let’s see if New Japan’s biggest stars could deliver in their archrival’s ring.
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.
After Misawa led his exodus of wrestlers from All Japan to form NOAH, All Japan was left with a handful of wrestlers. But instead of closing for good, Motoko Baba, Giant Baba’s widow and the de facto new head honcho for the company, reached out to a bunch of people to try and keep the company alive, at least until 2002.
One of the parties she reached out to was New Japan, which had been All Japan’s bitter rival for decades. For those out there that think the Monday Night Wars between WWE and WCW were bitter and intense, it had nothing on AJPW vs. NJPW. So when NJPW agreed to work WITH its longstanding rival instead of letting it crumble and fade away, fans saw it as a truly special time. AJPW, long walled off from the rest of the wrestling world, was now opening up.
This new relationship led to some enormous dream matches, most of them centered on Toshiaki Kawada who was the only AJPW wrestler with main-event status to stick around following the split. Kawada had some great matches in 2000 and 2001, but All Japan needed more wrestlers to freshen up the scene in case Kawada got hurt which, given the kinds of insane matches he had during the prior decade, was highly likely to happen at any time.
All Japan got several NJPW wrestlers to come over to wrestle for them but arguably the biggest of these was Keiji Muto. Muto was one of the biggest and most popular wrestlers in Japan during the prior decade and in 2001 he was undergoing one of the most impressive career renaissances ever seen. Years of wrestling an intensive style that involved lots of moonsaults caused heavy damage to his knees. But instead of retiring after a respectable 16 years, Muto changed his look and style completely. Like post-broken neck Steve Austin, Muto began wrestling in a style that got more out of less, one that would see him build matches around hitting his patented Shining Wizard. This style helped keep him in the spotlight and extended his career far longer than anyone expected, and as a result was able to build an even bigger legacy for himself.
But Muto didn’t work this crosspromotional program just to have dream matches or add to his career; he did so to get away from the chaos happening at home. New Japan was in something of a downward spiral during these early years, most of which came from the top. Antonio Inoki’s MMA obsession was still going strong and many wrestlers were sacrificed at the altar of Inokism. Working for All Japan allowed Muto to maintain his status as a NJPW wrestler without being pigeonholed into whatever experiment Inoki was thinking of. And because he was still such a skilled and entertaining wrestler, Muto managed to win All Japan’s top prize, the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship, while still being a NJPW representative.
After beating Tenryu to win that title and defending it against another AJPW mainstay in Steve Williams, Muto needed a new challenger. It was clear that the big dream match was between Muto and Kawada, but that was still months away so an interim challenger was needed. And since All Japan’s roster was still bereft of credible challengers, Muto figured he’d bring in someone else from home in Chono.
Masahiro Chono was another NJPW mainstay and was one of Muto’s fellow Three Musketeers. Like Muto, Chono was a top star from the previous decade who was looking for a way out of Inoki’s booking that was taking his homoe promotion in an unpopular and undesirable direction. And while he chose to focus on non-wrestling ventures for the most part at the time, especially given his own litany of injuries, he still wrestled regularly enough to still have enough credibility to be seen as a big deal.
However, Chono wasn’t that much of a “workhorse” guy; he was always a guy who got over with his personality instead of his in-ring work, and All Japan was still considered more of a ringwork-heavy promotion. So could Chono live up to higher expectations, especially given that he was facing one of his longest and most prominent rivals?
This match originally took place on October 27, 2001. It never received a formal rating by Dave Meltzer or any other known English wrestling publication. Also, for what it’s worth, Muto entered the arena looking like this:
He had so many titles at this time that he wore them like a makeshift suit of armor. I don’t know about you, but if I saw a random wrestling match and one of the wrestlers was that decorated I’d think, “huh, that guy must be REALLY good”. Let’s see if all those titles actually mean something and aren’t just for show.
This is for Muto’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. The bell rings and Chono rushes Muto into a corner and hammers him with strikes. Chono sends Muto into the ropes and goes for a kneelift. Muto dodges and lands a dropkick but Chono brushes it off and lands a shining yakuza kick to the face. Chono poses as Muto rolls to the floor to recover. Back in the ring, the match slows down a bit as the two grapple to the canvas. Chono applies a front chancery but Muto gets a ropebreak.
Muto takes Chono down and attempts an STF (Chono’s signature move) but Chono blocks it so Muto switches to another grounded hold. Muto tries a kimura but Chono powers him into a corner to break that hold and lands more strikes to Muto’s head and neck. Muto attempts a dragon screw leg whip but Chono blocks it. Muto powers Chono into a corner and lands some shoulder thrusts followed by his patented snapmare/flashing elbow combo. He goes back to Chono’s leg and the two wrestlers end up in the double heel hook spot until Chono gets the upper hand for a few seconds as Muto gets another ropebreak.
Chono lets go for less than a second and then drops some elbow and knees to maintain control over the champion. Chono dodges a corner handspring elbow, snapmares Muto, and then spits on him. He goes for a kick but Muto counters with a dragon screw and then his first of many Dropkicks to the knee (DTK). Muto follows with a missile dropkick and a second DTK and then tries a superplex. Chono knocks him down but Muto follows with a dragon screw from the top turnbuckle. Muto hits a diving DTK and a third dragon screw and then locks in a Figure-4 leglock. Chono gets a ropebreak and kicks Muto from a grounded position. Muto charges but Chono lands a Manhattan drop/downward spiral combination.
After recovering on the mat for a bit, Chono regains control with a piledriver that gets him a two-count. Chono lands another downward spiral facebuster and then locks in what looks like a butterfly lock that puts immense pressure on the neck. Chono tries grounding Muto but the champion still reaches the ropes with his foot.
Muto holds onto the ropes on the apron as Chono tries booting him to the floor. Chono joins Muto on the apron but when he goes for another high kick Muto counters with a dragon screw from the apron to the floor. Chono appears to hurt his elbow more than his leg but he sucks it up and climbs back onto the apron…where Muto meets him with a Shining Wizard. Muto rolls Chono into the ring and covers. One, two, Chono kicks out. Muto lands his rib breaker to setup his moonsault but sees Chono getting up. Shining Wizard #2. Chono fires up and hits a shining yakuza kick. Both men collapse. Chono hobbles over for a cover. Muto grabs the ropes to avoid a pin.
Despite the weakness in his leg, Chono lands another boor to Muto’s face. A second one sends Muto bouncing into the ropes. Muto tries another Shining Wizard. Chono counters with a drop toehold and locks in an STF. Muto gets a ropebreak so Chono tries a sleeper hold. Muto throws him off and lands an abisengiri rolling kick followed by another rib breaker. Then Muto goes to the top rope. Diving moonsault…misses. Chono locks in another STF. Muto fights with all his might and finally gets a ropebreak.
Frustrated, Chono slaps Muto’s bald head and goes for another high kick…only to suffer yet another dragon screw. Muto lands another Shining Wizard. Chono tries another shining yakuza kick but Muto blocks it. Chono blocks Muto’s next Shining Wizard and the two wrestlers go back and forth blocking their nearly-identical finishers. Then Chono hits a Shining Wizard and covers Muto. One, two, and th – Muto kicks out. Chono charges out of a corner and hits a yakuza kick. One, two, Muto kicks out again. Chono charges one more time…and Muto counters with a standing Frankensteiner. One, two…and three! Muto gets the pin out of nowhere to retain his title!
Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 22:52: Keiji Muto
That was an impressive match though not on any truly out-of-this-world level. The crowd was quiet at the beginning but then got hot at the end, which proved that both wrestlers earned the fans’ approval. The in-ring action was solid. The flow and shifts in control made this match look and feel competitive. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t hold up to the same standard as 1990s All Japan, or even some of Muto’s other great All Japan matches between 2001 and 2002. It would’ve been much better if Muto had an opponent that went a bit further in making his offense look as painful and effective as it was said to be instead of brushing it off and in some cases ignoring it.
I’m not trying to put the blame on Chono here, but his actions here did little to sell Muto’s post-renaissance strategy as effective. I can write about Muto’s later ringwork ad nauseam but there comes a time when the wrestlers have to back that up in the ring. After doing a bunch of standard grappling for the first 5-10 minutes, Muto zeroed in on Chono’s right leg, which was the one with which he kicked the most and therefore needed the most if he wanted to win. Mito hit several DTKs, dragon screws, and a Figure-4 to ground Chono but Chono barely sold it as the match progressed. There was no collapsing from pain, no shift in his repertoire, no urgency in his body language. It was as if he just recovered fairly quickly and suffered no ill effects afterwards. In doing so, he made much of Muto’s work a waste of time, especially since at the end both men ended up trading finishers on each other in an almost video game-like situation.
In contrast, Muto actually sold for Chono beautifully. He clasped his head and neck, looked pained and troubled, and looked to be in genuine danger as Chono hit one neck-targeting move after another. The contrast between them was clear: there was a consistency between Chono’s successful moves from start to finish that made it seem like Muto had taken so much damage to one body part that he could conceivably lose at any point.
Conversely, Muto’s strategy of going after Chono’s leg barely accomplished anything, aside from slowing him down once or twice so that he could land his Shining Wizard. And even then, there seemed to be diminishing returns as the SW didn’t seem to do that much to Chono, which in turn forced Muto to come up with a different finish out of nowhere. And while that new finish was refreshing, it was so out-of-nowhere that it made the match’s conclusion come off as abrupt and in some ways a bit deflating.
Final Rating: ***3/4
This was an interesting match though not as successful or as strong as it could’ve been. These two wrestlers knew each other so well but for whatever reason their chemistry was off here. I think they were trying to make Chono look like more of a badass by having him brush off everything Muto hit him with but it really didn’t work because in the process of trying to tell that story they made Muto look weak and his work somewhat ineffective.
It would’ve been a much better match if Chono was actually forced to slow down and struggle for a while. Put yourselves in this position: if you suffer extensive and sustained damage to one leg, you’re going to react to that damage right away. Maybe you’ll hobble on one leg for a while. Maybe you’ll struggle to put weight on it and be forced to hold yourself up with some nearby object. Or maybe you’ll collapse to the ground because you can no longer hold yourself up. Given Muto’s strategy, it was disappointing that Chono didn’t do any of that do put Muto’s offense over. The closest he did to any of that was that his kicks were less efficient because he wasn’t hitting them with full power. And yet despite these wrestlers’ best efforts to tell a believable story and have an exciting match, it fell short, especially compared to Muto’s AJPW matches with the likes of Tenryu and Kawada.
This was a case of the background, context, and unique circumstances of the match being more interesting than the match itself. The final product didn’t deliver as much as it could have, but at least there was enough uniqueness about it to make it worth seeing at least once.