What we’ve got here is a twofold wrestling experiment of sorts.
This match sought to accomplish two things: put on a story-heavy match in a way that transcended language, and to see if drama and gimmicks could succeed in captivating an audience conditioned to focus on matches in a ‘workrate’-heavy promotion like NOAH.
It was a daring experiment: a company known for offering product A suddenly shifting to a hybrid with product A-2. Did it work? 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.
Two months earlier, KENTA beat Yoshinobu Kanemaru to win the GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship for the first time. This marked his beginning as the division’s ace and was seen as the beginning of his singles push as a babyface. But there was a problem: KENTA didn’t look or wrestle like a babyface. His mannerisms, body language, facial expressions, and wrestling style all screamed ‘heel’. He hit people extremely hard and seemed to show little remorse whenever he took things too far. And yet he couldn’t suddenly just change everything about him; after all, that heelishness is what got him to this point in his career in the first place. So if KENTA the babyface wasn’t going to change how he wrestled, the only way for him to succeed was for an even bigger heel to out-heel KENTA. Enter SUWA.
SUWA was a junior heavyweight and former student of Ultimo Dragon’s. He was one of many outsiders brought to NOAH to help elevate its local stars. SUWA had been in NOAH for a year by this point and in that time he did everything he could to get under KENTA’s skin. And now that KENTA was champion and SUWA was the challenger, this year-long feud was about to come to an end.
This match originally took place on September 18, 2005. It was rated **** out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
This is for KENTA’s GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship. Joe Higuchi, a former referee and LONG-time AJPW/NOAH veteran, begins reading the formal title match declaration that makes each title defense official/sanctioned. But midway through, SUWA rips the document from Higuchi’s hands and tears it to pieces. KENTA takes advantage with a big boot that sends SUWA to ringside. Higuchi grabs the title belt and SUWA flips him off from the apron.
The officials finally get all their official business out of the way and the match begins. A strike exchange ends with another boot from KENTA. SUWA bails to avoid another kick but KENTA chases him and smashes him into different ringside objects. KENTA turns around to the ref for a second but that allows SUWA to hit KENTA with the title belt. Then SUWA grabs his huge briefcase and hits KENTA in the head with it. The ref calls for the bell, meaning that this match is a no-contest.
Match result: no-contest after 1:34 (KENTA is still GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion)…or is it?
Post-match, KENTA is declared the winner but SUWA’s the one celebrating for the damage he’s caused. Then the referee talks with Higuchi and makes an announcement. I have no idea what he’s actually saying since I don’t speak Japanese, but based on a few English words thrown in there (“title”, “match”), body language, and the crowd’s reaction, I can safely conclude that Higuchi is ordering that the match be restarted. The crowd pops and the bell rings for round two.
KENTA, now recovered, chases SUWA up the entrance ramp and proceeds to kick the soul out of him. He suplexes SUWA onto the entrance ramp and then tosses him back into the ring. The two play cat-and-mouse until SUWA gets into another argument with Higuchi and Higuchi threatens to throw down as he takes off his suit jacket. The crowd goes nuts because Higuchi is a deeply-respected legend in Japan, like a cross between Jim Ross and Earl Hebner sans Montreal Screwjob. SUWA gets distracted by Jiguchi long enough for KENTA to literally kick him back into the ring. KENTA drapes SUWA stomach-first on the top rope and then hits some stiff shots, including a slap to the head so hard it sounds like the crack of a whip.
KENTA hits a dropkick for a two-count and then applies a chinlock. SUWA escapes and then counters with a William Regal-style cut-throat neckbreaker. SUWA distracts the ref by pointing to one of KENTA’s seconds and uses that to remove his wrist tape and choke KENTA with it. Then when the ref closes in to check on this, SUWA shifts his body just enough to conceal the evidence without tightening his grip.
SUWA unties a turnbuckle pad and even hits the ref with it. The match doesn’t end because disqualifications are extremely rare in Japan and no-one wants a title match to end via no-contest anymore. NOAH, and All Japan before it, had over a decade of clean pins and “anything goes in the ring” booking so I guess this is the logical conclusion of that mindset. SUWA amps up the villainy with an eye rake, a low blow in front of the referee, and then a boot to one of KENTA’s seconds. SUWA spits on this rookie as the ref holds him back. KENTA escapes a suplex but runs into a tilt-a-whirl backbreaker. SUWA kicks KENTA to the floor and then shoots him back-first into the barricade. Then he drives KENTA crotch-first into the ringpost. F**king OUCH!
Back in the ring, SUWA hits a pendulum backbreaker and covers for a one-count. SUWA sends KENTA into the ropes but KENTA ducks down and hits a barrage of roundhouse kicks. SUWA goes down and KENTA goes to the apron for his springboard dropkick. But this time SUWA shoves the ref into the ropes which causes KENTA to fall hard. SUWA follows with a Backdrop suplex but only gets a two-count.
SUWA applies a face-stretching camel clutch and then sends KENTA into a corner where he hits some really stiff shots. SUWA follows with a running dropkick into that same corner and covers but only gets a two-count. KENTA blocks a follow-up corner charge and lands a diving headscissor takedown followed by another big boot. KENTA follows with a single-leg running dropkick and his springboard double-leg dropkick for a two-count of his own. KENTA hits a stiff kick combo but misses on a follow-up yakuza kick. SUWA goes for a back suplex but KENTA lands behind him. KENTA ducks a clothesline but runs into a flapjack. Another cover gets SUWA another kick-out.
SUWA walks across KENTA’s forehead and then hits a diving lariat from the top rope. He follows with a suicide dive out of the ring and another running lariat once back in. KENTA kicks out so SUWA goes for a powerbomb. KENTA escapes and hits a martial arts rush. He charges to the ropes for a Busaiku Knee. SUWA catches him and hits an electric chair facebuster. One, two, KENTA kicks out. SUWA tries a double-arm facebuster. KENTA counters with a bridging Tiger suplex for a two-count. KENTA tries the Go 2 Sleep but SUWA escapes and slaps the taste out of KENTA’s mouth. SUWA charges. KENTA hits a jumping headscissor but SUWA hits back with a Manhattan drop and another strike barrage, followed by a shotgun dropkick into a corner. SUWA tries another double-arm facebuster but this time KENTA counters with a successful Go 2 Sleep. Both men collapse around the 20-minute mark.
A stiff strike exchange ensues and ends with a spinkick to the gut from KENTA. Then KENTA hits multiple roundhouse kicks to SUWA’s head but SUWA still kicks out at two. KENTA lands the Busaiku Knee but SUWA stays on one knee. KENTA hits two more roundhouses and then a full-power Busaiku Knee
Winner and STILL GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion after 21:47: KENTA
This was a very interesting match. NOAH usually didn’t really do “faces” and “heels” in the traditional American sense at first because such things didn’t exist under Giant Baba in All Japan and Misawa’s NOAH was meant to be a continuation of Baba’s wrestling legacy. But a wrestling company can’t survive forever on great matches alone, as AJPW and later NOAH found out the hard way. And yet Misawa and NOAH’s other bookers couldn’t risk going full speed ahead in the other direction with gimmicks and angles lest they lose their core audience, as All Japan did under Muto during this same period. And so, NOAH gambled on a compromise: a traditional NOAH-style match with in-your-face elements of WWE-style theatrics mixed in as well. And the result was a pretty exciting contest, all things considered.
If there was ever a way to establish a wrestler as a despicable d**k without needing to cut a promo, this match was it. SUWA was the most blatant and underhanded cheater imaginable. He was determined to abuse the referee’s and other officials’ unwillingness to disqualify him as much as possible. As a result, KENTA suffered one major setback after another. SUWA hammed things up and got the fans so riled up that anything KENTA did became heroic by comparison. SUWA was so overt, so explicit, and so dedicated to his villainy that KENTA was able to become the babyface with little effort. Thanks to SUWA’s cleverness and willingness to take short-cuts, it was easy for KENTA to take the babyface’s path and come out victorious in the end.
And because the match was carried by this story as opposed to the action, KENTA and SUWA were able to get away with doing less for more of a reaction. This didn’t have the same intensity as KENTA’s title challenge at Destiny 2005 nor his battle with Low Ki in December, but it did have more justification for its existence than being a simple title match. Watching the match you could actually feel the hostility between these two men. SUWA didn’t have to say anything; the moves he did in this match made it clear he was meant to be hated and he fulfilled his duty to the letter. He built up his heel heat so much and so well that KENTA’s quick comeback got a monstrous reaction that peaked when he hit his finish to win the match.
As for the two experiments, did they both succeed? Well, yes and no. The concept of adding angles and gimmicks proved that it could work in NOAH, but it didn’t help too much since NOAH’s core audience didn’t grow that much from its 2004-2005 peak, even with interesting ideas like this one. This match, in a vacuum, was a success because it helped build SUWA as a heel and elevate KENTA as a credible champion. But long-term it didn’t help matters too much, though not for a lack of trying.
Regarding its second one, this match proved that actions speak louder than words. I know that might seem redundant in a medium as visual as wrestling, but SUWA’s performance in this match is worth focusing on. He had to be as big of a heel as possible and he had to act that way in front of an audience that may not have known who he was. So everything he did in the ring told more of a story than any promos and hype videos. He did more to sell this match and tell his story with a few specific actions than many American wrestlers do over the course of weeks with matches, angles, and build videos. Less is more, and in this case SUWA did more with less.
Final Rating: ****
While I wouldn’t call this an in-ring classic or a real MOTYC by any means, I think this match is worth watching because of what it accomplished. These days it’s so hard to get new viewers into something, especially with short attention spans and a need to understand context. That’s why, for example, if one were to try and introduce a new viewer to AEW or WWE, then that new viewer would watch the action and ask questions as things progress. You won’t find that problem here. KENTA and SUWA make things very clear within minutes without needing to cut promos. Their wrestling was understandable in different languages thanks to how they moved, sold, fought, and expressed themselves. Even though they wrestled in front of their countrymen, they treated this match as if there was an international element to their audience as well.
There may be some people watching English-speaking wrestling that don’t know what’s going on because they don’t understand English. And so they’re left trying to understand a promo or a story explanation by desperately seeking comments in their own language or looking for a version with the appropriate subtitles. Matches like this one eliminate that concern by simply featuring action that can be understood without needing any extra background information, which is what makes it so refreshing.