Champion vs. challenger.
Student vs. master.
New school vs. old school.
Youth vs. experience.
Marufuji vs. Misawa.
Let’s see if this lived up to the hype.
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.
It took many years but in 2006, Marufuji won the GHC Heavyweight Championship. He beat Jun Akiyama in September to win the title and then in October he retained it in one of the best matches to ever take place when he survived (not beat, survived) KENTA.
Marufuji managed to beat one of his contemporaries and he managed to beat one of NOAH’s best active wrestlers. But could he beat the Emperor?
Even though this was 2006 and he was WAY past his prime, Mitsuharu Misawa was revered in Japan. His wrestling skill, toughness, and dedication were the stuff of legend. NOAH was his company, built on his name and had adopted his trademark emerald green color. Even his nickname spoke volumes of his skill: he was called ‘The Standard Bearer for Future Generations’. And Marufuji was exactly that, the future generation.
As we’ve seen before, Marufuji had already proven himself a capable wrestler in his own right. He was quick, inventive, explosive, and hard-hitting. He was a trend-setter, but he could wrestle in a more classic style if necessary.
But again, could he beat his mentor? Marufuji was Misawa’s gopher for many years. He accompanied Misawa to the ring, cleared the way for him as fans swarmed Misawa, and did any task his master asked of him. Marufuji learned from the best, and now it was time to prove it.
This match originally took place on December 10th, 2006. It was rated **** by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
They shake hands and the match begins. The crowd is overwhelmingly behind Misawa as he shoulder tackles Marufuji down off a headlock. Marufuji leapfrogs over Misawa and hits some arm drags. After some chain grappling, Marufuji speeds up even more leading to lots of dodged strikes and some more chain reversals. The crowd applauds loudly as the master and student end up in a stalemate.
Marufuji shows more balls than sense as he walks up to Misawa and elbows him in the face. But grumpy Misawa’s having none of that and elbows back. The two hit each other back-and-forth until Marufuji fakes Misawa out and clotheslines him down for a one-count. Marufuji applies a chinlock followed by a facelock (Misawa’s rarely-used early-1990s tertiary finisher) and Misawa sinks down for a two-count. Marufuji goes for another elbow exchange but this time Misawa hits back much harder with several stiff shots. Marufuji reverses a sudden Irish whip and charges at Misawa but Misawa ducks and sends Marufuji onto the elevated entrance ramp. Marufuji ducks an elbow, shoulder checks Misawa’s gut, and lands a dragon screw leg whip through the ropes.
Marufuji exploits this newfound opening and smashes Misawa’s leg into a ringpost. He followed with a second dragon screw and a running dropkick to the knee. Back in the ring, Marufuji applies a leglock but Misawa gets a ropebreak. He kicks Misawa’s leg as hard as possible until Misawa gets mad. He fires up like a grumpy old man that’s tired of the young guy’s s**t and hits more stiff elbows. Marufuji no-sells them and hits back with hjis own elbows and a dropkick to the bad knee. He follows with a knee breaker and then with multiple stomps to the back of that bad knee. Marufuji’s creative offense is always great. He continues with a painful-looking leglock variation and then an STF and then pushes Misawa out of the ring. Misawa can’t escape as Marufuji wraps his leg up through the gaps in the steel ring barricade and then lands a dropkick to it from the apron. Misawa tries hitting back but Marufuji kicks the barricade to do more damage to Misawa’s leg.
Back in the ring, Marufuji goes for another leglock but Misawa grabs the ropes before he can do anything. Not wanting to let this opportunity slip away, Marufuji carefully releases Misawa’s leg and kicks the bottom rope away from Misawa’s arm so that he can go back to working over the leg without the referee warning him. Small stuff like that adds a lot to these otherwise spot-focused matches. Marufuji tries a bunch of different leg submission holds, including a sharpshooter, but Misawa gets another ropebreak at the ten-minute mark.
Marufuji gets Misawa in a corner and stretches his leg through the ropes. He almost starts wrestling like a heel as the ref gives him the five-count to release Misawa. Marufuji hits more stiff strikes but Misawa hits back with elbows. He hits a nasty dragon screw and applies a heel hook while stepping on Misawa’s arm to block him from getting another ropebreak. These small things that Marufuji does are among the many reasons why he’s so great and under-appreciated as a wrestler.
Misawa spends some time getting feeling back in his leg and then goes for an Irish whip. Marufuji tries faking him out/confusing him but Misawa catches on, ducks another clothesline, and hits a back elbow. Marufuji falls to ringside and Misawa charges and lands his elbow suicida through the ropes.
Misawa gets up first, tries getting more feeling back into his leg, and hits a running senton off the apron onto Marufuji below. Misawa hobbles back onto the apron and teases a Tiger Driver off of it. Marufuji blocks it, tanks an elbow, and hits a thrust kick. Marufuji teases a Shiranui using the ringpost but Misawa blocks that. Misawa lifts Marufuji up for the apron Tiger Driver…and Marufuji counters with a midair headscissor that sends Misawa flying to the floor.
Both guys take their time getting into the ring and Misawa makes it in second at the count of sixteen. Marufuji hits some big corner elbow splashes and then attempts a powerbomb. Misawa powers out but Marufuji lands behind him and attempts a German. Misawa elbows out so Marufuji dropkicks his knee and then the side of his head. Both men end up trading elbows on the entrance ramp until Marufuji blocks one and Misawa blocks another Shiranui attempt. Marufuji fires back with a thrust kick and grabs Misawa’s head. Shiranui off the ramp to the floor.
Another slow return to the ring spot ensues and Misawa again makes it in at sixteen. But this time Marufuji’s waiting for him and hits a diving missile dropkick to Misawa’s head followed by a Kawada-style Folding Powerbomb for a two-count. Marufuji hits another thrust kick and attempts a Shiranui, Misawa blocks and lands a bridging German suplex for his own two-count. Marufuji blocks a Frozen Emerald and hits a German of his own. Misawa blocks another Shiranui, this time mid-move with an elbow drop to the chest. After regaining feeling in his neck, Misawa goes for an Irish whip but Marufuji reverses it. Misawa blocks a corner charge and goes for a springboard back elbow but Marufuji cuts him off and flies over him and to the floor while smashing Misawa’s face into the ringpost. Marufuji climbs the turnbuckle for a dive but Misawa cuts him off. a struggle ensues in the corner. Marufuji teases a Super Shiranui. Misawa blocks and hits a top-rope Tiger Suplex ’85. Marufuji literally bounces off the mat as he lands. Misawa crawls over for the cover. One, two, and – Marufuji kicks out.
Misawa ascends the turnbuckle for a frog splash but Marufuji cuts him off with another thrust kick and hits a Spanish Fly. One, two, Misawa survives. The crowd’s going nuts now. Stiff one-two elbow combo by Misawa. double kick combo by Marufuji followed by a superkick. Marufuji attempts his super finisher the Pole Shift (Fisherman Brainbuster) but Misawa blocks it. Emerald Flowsion Kai/Brainbuster Frozen Emerald. Misawa hits his ultra-finisher! One, two, and thr – NO, Marufuji survives again. Tiger Driver ’91! Marufuji survives that, too! Misawa charges for a running elbow. Marufuji hits first with a superkick. Misawa tries again and gets the same result. Misawa tries a rolling elbow but Marufuji his harder and faster. Marufuji tries the Shiranui yet again. But this time Misawa gets him on the top rope…and hits a diving Frozen Emerald! One, two, and three! Misawa wins the world title. The master beats the student!
Winner and NEW GHC Heavyweight Champion after 25:32: Mitsuharu Misawa
This was an excellent match with a pretty sad finish. The wrestling was solid, the crowd was lively, and the few near-falls at the end all were most if not all believable since both wrestlers saved going for covers for the end instead of sprinkling them evenly throughout the entire match. Marufuji took a ton of punishment and still kept going. He survived one big Misawa bomb after another and kept going. Marufuji was put over like a million dollars in the end and Misawa put on one of his best matches in years.
There was such a massive gulf in believability between Misawa and Marufuji at first, but that gulf shrank pretty soon. What Marufuji lacked in size and stature he made up with speed, health, and strategy. He was fresher than Misawa so he was able to recover faster. His explosive speed allowed him to confuse and out-fox his slower challenger. And he nearly destroyed Misawa’s knee with some great limbwork. And as I mentioned earlier, Marufuji’s attention to detail made him so much fun to watch. All the small things he did here to give importance to ring awareness and other more minute details showed that moves aren’t everything. He told a story of trying everything possible to win. But Misawa was just too much for him. He overcame Marufuji’s brutal limb targeting and hit back hard. He risked everything and hit some of the craziest spots of his career in this match to keep Marufuji down long enough. And since Marufuji learned from the best, Misawa had to keep escalating and escalating until he hit enough nasty head spikes to keep Marufuji down for the three-count.
So why was it sad? Well, because Marufuji was put in his place by his mentor just when his world title reign was gaining steam. It was basically and early admission of failure on NOAH’s part and they decided to try and mitigate their losses by putting the title on a bigger draw.
Once that bell rang to signal the end of the match, Misawa must’ve been the only wrestler in modern times unhappy to hear fans chanting his name. Because in this match, the master beat the student. The torch wasn’t passed to the next generation; it went back to the previous one. The fans chanting Misawa’s name so loudly and so clearly. They never chanted Marufuji’s name; not once. They cheered his spots but they didn’t cheer for him. It was as clear an indication as any that the Marufuji experiment was over. Misawa the broken down legend beat the best wrestler NOAH’s next generation had to offer. And since there was no one else that could carry the title and keep live gates at a sustainable level, Misawa went with his last-ditch option and put the title on himself. Misawa’s health, along with that of NOAH itself, took a nosedive after this point. Misawa should’ve been nearing retirement; instead, he spent the next year-and-a-half as world champion wrestling way more intensely than his body could handle.
It was another example of a great match having the wrong finish. In a vacuum the match was exciting, had great action, and delivered as a crowd-drawing and captivating main event. But in terms of story, it didn’t make sense. Marufuji needed to win here to prove that he could carry NOAH going forward. But the audience just didn’t care about him. And since live gates and live fan reaction was much more critical to NOAH’s business success, how they reacted to a certain wrestler indicated who they paid to see. It was obvious to anyone with functioning ears: Misawa was the draw, now Marufuji.
Would the opposite finish have made this match better? Maybe. Marufuji’s legwork was rendered largely redundant by the end as Misawa’s selling became spottier towards the end despite being great early on. And the match’s story seemed to build the hope and comeback on the aging Misawa instead of Marufuji the physical underdog. While I get the logic behind booking Misawa as this aging gunslinger combing back for one last run (not too unlike Goldberg’s 2016-2017 run opposite Brock Lesnar), it was a hard sell. Misawa’s title win here had this unshakeable sense that it was a business decision and not out of story or out of competition. That hurt the match, especially given how awesome Marufuji was as a wrestler at the time.
Final Rating: ****1/4
Marufuji deserves tons of praise for pulling such a strong performance out of Misawa. his mentor was well past his prime and approaching that ‘grumpy old man only does what he wants and screw your newer nonsense’ phase but Marufuji forced Misawa’s hand. These two had great chemistry together and they put on a compelling match that could’ve gone either way for the most part.
In hindsight, this match can be described as a somewhat inferior version of Kobashi vs. Akiyama from Departure 2004. It was an almost identical situation: the newer generation fails to beat the older generation when it mattered most. Akiyama was put in his place (beneath Kobashi) in that match and Marufuji was put in his place (beneath Misawa) here. I’m sure there were some private or business-related reasons for both decisions, but considering that the Kobashi/Akiyama match started NOAH’s gradual downfall and this match accelerated it, it’s safe to say that both decisions weren’t that wise, all things considered.