Few wrestlers have had such an interesting wrestling career as Keiji Muto.
Despite never setting foot in WWE, the man inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2023 had one of the most incredible journeys as a professional wrestler. His entire career spanned almost forty years and he wrestled his last match February this year at age 60.
Muto’s career makes for an interesting case study in longevity. It’s often said that wrestling careers are short and take a serious toll on one’s body. But Muto defied that claim and extended his career by over two decades. How did he do that? By trimming the fat in his style and wrestling in a simplistic but focused style that put logic ahead of everything else.
This transformation didn’t go unnoticed by wrestling fans and especially the Wrestling Observer readership, who showered Muto with awards in 2001 for having the best wrestling move in the Shining Wizard, having the best match of the entire year, being the most improved wrestler of the year, being the readers’ favorite wrestler, and simply being the best wrestler overall.
But were all of Muto’s matches that great, or was that praise based on only a small handful of performances? Read on to find out.
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 2001 G1 Climax was much shorter than its more recent incarnations. It featured only two blocks of only six wrestlers each and took place over only eight days. Both Nagata and Muto won their blocks with only one loss each, which was enough for both of them to reach the finals. This was a big deal of a match-up, especially since it was considered a generational passing-of-the-torch moment.
Nagata was eight years Muto’s junior and so was seen as part of the generation below him. If he wanted to reach the main-event level then he needed a big win over someone much higher on the card and already established as a star.
Additionally, winning here would help Nagata negate some of the ill-fated MMA involvement he was saddled with due to Antonio Inoki’s obsession with adding wrestlers to MMA fights and MMA fighters to wrestling matches.
Furthermore, Muto was already a busy man bouncing back-and-forth between New Japan and All Japan. It wasn’t known yet, but Muto was forming a closer bond with AJPW due to both his critical involvement in the interpromotional program that saved AJPW from closure and his own personal distaste for Inoki’s MMA obsession.
Nagata was a capable amateur wrestler but so too was Muto. Both men had genuine amateur credentials and both were just as adept hitting full-contact strikes as they were on torturing others on the mat. But each man had one key advantage: Nagata was younger and fresher while Muta was older yet wiser. Nagata was relatively injury-free while Muto was so worn down that he was expected to have retired in 2000 yet was still going strong by the time this match came about.
So what would win at the end of the day, youth and health or wisdom and experience?
This match originally took place on August 12, 2001. It was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
The match starts with a technical exchange and some back-and-forth hold countering that ends in a stalemate and applause from the crowd. Another long chain grappling sequence ensues with even more matwork. This goes on until Muto attempts a cross armbreaker but Nagata gets a ropebreak. Nagata goes for a roundhouse kick but Muto counters with a single-leg takedown, but Nagata counters with a guillotine choke attempt. The crowd, who was loud already, fires up and starts chanting Muto’s name until he gets a ropebreak.
After getting a breather ringside, Muto goes for another takedown but Nagata counters with a front chancery. Muto escapes with a spinkick followed by a snapmare/flashing elbow combination. Muto floats over into a double wristlock and then switches to a neck scissor but Nagata escapes and starts hitting mounted knees to Muto’s head. Nagata tries his own cross armbreaker but Muto breaks free. He sends Nagata into a corner and goes for his corner handspring/facebuster combo. Nagata blocks it and applies a crossface. Muto lasts over a full minute in Nagata’s finishing hold before getting another ropebreak.
Nagata lands three kicks to Muto’s calf but then Muto catches his leg and lands a dragon screw leg whip. Muto goes for a Figure-4 leglock but Nagata counters with a triangle hold. Muto gets another ropebreak and then goes for another dragon screw but Nagata blocks it so Muto switches to a dropkick to the knee. The crowd chants along as Muto lands two more DTKs and a second dragon screw and then locks in a Figure-4. Nagata loosens the hold for a moment and reaches for the ropes but Muto turns it around and tightens the hold again.
Nagata gets a ropebreak so Muto lands second-rope DTK. Muto follows with a third DTK and a second Figure-4. Nagata gets another ropebreak so Muto hits yet another DTK. He lands another dragon screw and tries a third Figure-4, but this time Nagata kicks his head before the hold is fully applied. Nagata counters into an ankle lock with a grapevine. Muto tries pulling himself (and by extension Nagata) to the ropes but Nagata sinks down. Muto finally reaches the ropes and Nagata fires up by slapping his knee. I guess he has magic hands because that gives him the ability to start moving normally.
Nagata kicks Muto’s calf and charges to the ropes but Muto counters with a standing Frankensteiner into a cross armbreaker. Wait, no, Nagata counters into a Nagata Lock modified Figure-4. This hold goes on for a long time but then Muto gets a ropebreak of his own. Nagata goes for a corner wheel kick but Muto ducks it and hits an avalanche Frankensteiner. One, two, Nagata kicks out. Muto follows with a rib breaker and a snap moonsault. One, two, Nagata kicks out again. Cross armbreaker. Nagata gets another ropebreak and then ducks a corner Shining Wizard. Nagata follows with a German suplex and a Wrist-Clutch Exploder. Muto retaliates with a Shining Wizard. Both men collapse.
Both men get up and trade rolling kicks and then Muto hits a backflip kick. Muto goes for another Shining Wizard. Nagata counters into another crossface. Muto gives up. Nagata wins!
Winner of the 2001 G1 Climax tournament after 22:03: Yuji Nagata
Great main-event match filled with simplistic, no-frills wrestling. It was more like classic/pre-Tanahashi NJPW, which meant it closer resembled an MMA fight than a modern wrestling match. it was filled with technical grappling, submission holds, and a legit fight feel that made it feel more realistic and less like a narrative or story-driven match. There were still flashy moves sprinkled throughout but those were only present in small doses. It was clear from the wrestlers’ body language that they were being cautious even when in control because things could shift at any moment and did. There wasn’t much story in the match, which went against the build going into it, which in turn made the match feel somewhat basic. It wasn’t the emotional or significant passing of the torch moment it was supposed to be. And while the crowd was vocal from bell to bell, there seemed to be little follow-through from the start of the match to the finish. The end result was an exciting but somewhat haphazard match that hit some high notes but didn’t do anything exceptional.
After a back-and-forth first ten minutes, the match shifted to a question of whose submission hold would be more effective. Nagata kept going after Muto’s head and neck while Muto switched back and forth between Nagata’s arm and his knee. Muto gave a great example of doing more with less by limiting his wrestling dragon screws, dropkicks to the knee, and Figure-4s. Muto’s strategy was simple and straightforward, but it paid off bigtime…that is, until Nagata stopped selling and started hitting back as if completely unaffected by Muto’s legwork. That’s perhaps one of the problems with not just 1990s and early 2000s NJPW, but with many wrestling matches across time as a whole: one wrestler will devote so much time and effort into a strategy and the wrestler on the receiving end will simply abandon the selling at one point instead of recovering from it over time. That sudden abandon renders some moves inconsequential, and if the wrestlers don’t think something matters or don’t care to make it part of the story, why should the audience care about that stuff either?
Additionally, Muto’s failure to win with his strategy was a perfect demonstration of the sunken cost fallacy. He was so invested in his own iteration of the “5 moves of doom” that he failed to shift gears when he realized that Nagata was starting to out-wrestle him. By sticking to his guns so stubbornly, Muto became predictable and that led to his demise.
Final Rating: ***1/2
This was a fun match but a disappointing one as well. Both wrestlers put so much work into attacking limbs and creating these tense submission sequences, only for all of that to either fall apart at the end or end up irrelevant by the end. It made no sense for Nagata to start kicking Muto with his bad leg seconds after a long figure-4 leglock, or for Muto to go for a Frankensteiner, a moonsault, and several Shining Wizards mere moments after an extended ankle lock. If these guys were trying to convince you that they were both incredibly tough for being able to still move after being in holds for so long, they struck out on that front. Just brushing stuff off carelessly isn’t as good a storytelling direction as selling pain and damage and then fighting through it over time and THEN being able to brush it off.
If this was supposed to be some big passing of the torch moment from Muto to Nagata, it certainly didn’t come across that way. The match was completely even and there was no narrative shift that made it look like Nagata was surpassing Muto in any way. There was no magnitude, no moment of Nagata pushing ahead, no decisive finality to Nagata’s win. He got the win, but the emotion and story was threadbare and lacking in the catharsis one would expect in a match designed to get someone over.
Both guys tried here but this wasn’t a classic by any means. Maybe it’s the style of the time, or maybe it was simply how these two operated, but for whatever reason this match failed to live up to the hype. But at least Muto gave another demonstration of using the ‘5 moves of doom’ concept and getting as much mileage out of his as John Cena. It goes to show that even with language and stylistic differences between promotions, some concepts are universal in pro-wrestling.