(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Genichiro Tenryu vs. Satoshi Kojima – AJPW, July 17, 2002
The match we’re looking at today is a perfect example of building a star through losing.
One thing many wrestling companies have struggled with in the past is pulling the trigger on a specific wrestler at the right moment. Some wrestlers get white hot unexpectedly, which throws a monkey wrench in a company’s long-term plans. But when this happens, is it right for the powers-that-be to cave in to sudden demand, or should they stick to their original plans and play the long game?
This match is an example of the latter. Even though the challenger here was younger and beloved by the crowd, it wasn’t his time to be champion as of yet. He knew it, the champion knew it, and the company knew it. But the fans still loved him and wanted to see him win. So how do you ruin fans’ hopes and dreams yet still make them want to come back and see more? By making the challenger take an ungodly berating and survive for longer than expected.
And how did All Japan manage this with Satoshi Kojima? 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.
Tenryu returned to All Japan in 2000 after being gone for a decade. He famously took a big money deal from a billionaire with money to spend to open his own wrestling promotion, Super World of Sports (SWS). But SWS didn’t last long and All Japan didn’t allow Tenryu back in with open arms. In fact, Giant Babs publicly swore that he’d never work with Tenryu as long as he lived. And Baba kept his word (which he always did); he took his resentment for Tenryu to the grave. It took a different Baba – Motoko, Giant Baba’s widow – for Tenryu to come back.
Tenryu came back at Motoko’s request after Misawa led a talent exodus to NOAH. Tenryu’s return was one of several key steps that enabled All Japan to survive being absolutely gutted of talent and fans. Being gone for ten years brought plenty of curious fans, along with some nostalgic fans that remember Tenryu’s wars with Jumbo Tsuruta and other stars of the 1980s.
Tenryu’s return was a big deal for All Japan, but it was only part of the equation. He was an aging veteran and not meant to carry All Japan into the future. The other two top stars in All Japan at the time – Keiji Muto and Toshiaki Kawada – were popular and skilled but also injury riddled. That leaves the fourth man in this “New Four Pillars” of All Japan, Satoshi Kojima.
Kojima was much younger than the other three and much healthier. He was only thirty years old yet he already had 10 years’ experience as a wrestler. He was a tag team specialist in New Japan but he chose to follow Muto to All Japan in 2002 because he felt he would have better chances at success in Muto’s All Japan than Inoki’s MMA-obsessed New Japan.
Kojima was capable of being a solid world champion, but was he ready for the role? This wasn’t just any world championship; it was the Triple Crown. In an industry that treated titles like props or simple tools to draw money, the Triple Crown still carried a sense of prestige. Title defenses were rare, and the field of challengers was small. As the prior decade had shown, only the best of the best challenged for the Triple Crown. A decade later, even after the NOAH exodus, that mentality was still true.
This was the biggest match of Kojima’s life. He was challenging for the most coveted title in pro-wrestling against a certified legend in Japan. Tenrryu may have been much older but he was still in great shape for his age. But could Tenryu parlay his experience into a successful title defense? Or would Kojima cleave his head off with a lariat as powerful as Stan Hansen’s?
This match originally took place on July 17, 2002. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
This is for Tenryu’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Tenryu wins the first few lock-ups by overpowering Kojima. This frustrates Kojima and he unleashes a chop/elbow barrage onto Tenryu in a corner. After a stare-down, Tenryu applies a waistlock but Kojima counters with a drop toehold into an STF. The two wrestlers trade holds for a bit until Kojima knocks Tenryu down with a running shoulderblock. That’s followed by a Greco-Roman knuckle lock that goes back-and-forth until Kojima starts kicking Tenryu’s gut. Tenryu no-sells some chops and drops Kojima with some chops of his own and some snap jabs. Kojima bails to the floor to recover as the crowd applauds Tenryu.
Five minutes have passed as Kojima starts kicking Tenryu’s knee. Tenryu no-sells like a boss at first but then gradually starts slumping down more and more. It becomes harder for him to stay standing and then Kojima manages to get him to one knee. Kojima goes for a leglock but Tenryu kicks him right in the ear. Tenryu lands some stiff chops but Kojima drops him with another kick to the weakened knee. Tenryu hits back with a rolling kick but Kojima fights through it and goes for a half crab. Tenryu counters that into an ankle lock and then tightens the hold after Kojima gets a ropebreak. Kojima gets another ropebreak so Tenryu bombards him with corner strikes. Kojima tanks these and creates some space with more kicks to the bad knee, and then follows with a dragon screw leg whip.
Tenryu goes to ringside to get some breathing room but Kojima rushes him upon re-entry. Kojima lands more knee kicks but Tenryu hits with a body blow that looks more like a low bow which makes the crowd boo. Tenryu appears to have fully recovered as he lands running corner lariats and more strike combos. Another lariat sends Kojima to the floor but Tenryu goes after him with a suicide dive. Tenryu starts climbing back into the ring but Kojima lariats the back of Tenryu’s bad leg. And not wanting to be out-done, Kojima follows with a plancha from the ring onto Tenryu on the floor.
Tenryu gets up but Kojima knocks him back down with a senton off the apron. Back in the ring, Kojima lands a corner clothesline followed by a second dragon screw. He goes for a Figure-4 leglock but Tenryu blocks it from being applied, though only for a moment as he locks it in seconds later. Tenryu gets a ropebreak so Kojima locks in a sharpshooter. Tenryu gets another ropebreak so Kojima powers him into a corner and mocks him with a Tenryu-style strike barrage. Kojima follows with a corner forearm splash and a short-range diving elbow drop for a two-count. Kojima charges for a lariat but Tenryu blocks with an elbow and an enzuigiri. Tenryu follows with a DDT and a German suplex, both of which get two-counts. Then he lands a second German and this time Kojima sells like he’s out. The crowd rallies behind Kojima as the referee checks on him. As soon as he sees Kojima moving, Tenryu drops an elbow and locks in a double chickenwing lock. Kojima kicks his way out so Tenryu mounts him with a sleeper with bodyscissors. Again the crowd rallies behind Kojima and he gets a ropebreak with his foot.
Tenryu teases the end and goes for a Brainbuster. Kojima escapes and hits an Ace Crusher, followed by a straightjacket neckbreaker for a two-count. Kojima hits a sort of Michinoku Driver/Brainbuster hybrid move but only gets a one-count. Kojima picks Tenryu up but Tenryu hits first and lands a Sheerdrop Brainbuster. One, two, Kojima kicks out. Tenryu follows with a top-rope German suplex but misses his follow-up diving back elbow. The crowd goes nuts for Kojima’s comeback as he lands a top-rope diving Ace Crusher for a two-count. Kojima charges and hits an enzui lariat. Tenryu blocks the next one with an elbow. Kojima charges anyway and connects with another lariat. Both men collapse.
Both men get up and trade chops. Tenryu lands another strike combo and a second Brainbuster. That’s followed by Brainbuster #3. One, two, Kojima kicks out. Tenryu goes for a lariat of his own. Kojima blocks it and lands his own. One, two, Tenryu kicks out. Tenryu blocks a third lariat and lands another strike combo and a fourth Brainbuster. Then he hits Brainbuster #5. But Kojima gets right back up, charges, and hits a third lariat. One, two, and – Tenryu survives again. Another strike exchange ensues. Tenryu wins it and hits Brainbuster #6 but only gets a two-count. More strikes prevent Kojima from blocking or resisting as Tenryu lifts him up one final time. Folding Powerbomb! One, two…and three! There’s the match! Tenryu retains his title!
Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 28:55: Genichiro Tenryu
That was an excellent main-event match. It started off very slow but then picked up midway through and then accelerated towards the end. It was a simplistic match that saw both guys wear each other down by trying different strategies until both were weak enough for both guys to start spamming finishers. They told a great story of the 30-year-old rising star taking on the grumpy 52-year-old veteran. Both guys had great showings here: Tenryu showed he could still hang in a main-event setting, Kojima elevated himself by surviving way more than normal, and the fans got a competitive main-event worthy of the hallowed Triple Crown.
It wasn’t a particularly complex match; it was just two guys hitting each other as hard as possible until one of them could no longer survive before the count of three. Both guys tried some limbwork and strategic wrestling but it didn’t really lead to anything meaningful. So when those various strategies didn’t work, both guys just threw bombs at each other. The most impressive part of the match was Tenryu, who fought so well and did so much despite being over fifty years old. Wrestlers’ bodies age and fall apart so much faster than normal people’s so he must’ve been in significant pain and had major limitations on his body at this point in his career. And yet, he managed to hang with Kojima, survive so much, and still win in the end.
That’s not to say that Kojima didn’t fight hard, either. Tenryu might’ve been physically older and more worn down, but from a presentation and booking perspective Kojima was the weaker man. He was unproven against a certified legend and managed to survive one brutal finisher after another. By the time Tenryu began cycling through his finishers, it became clear that Kojima wasn’t winning, at least not yet. Instead, the story shifted to focus on how much punishment Kojima could survive. It was classic “save the big win for later” booking: have the younger guy not win now but make him look strong in defeat so that he has more credibility in the future. It worked perfectly: Kojima left this match stronger and tougher than how he entered it. All Japan built a star out of him by having him take a monumental thrashing from the company’s then-top wrestler and keep going.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This match was great but not as world class as I thought it would be. I’m used to seeing limbwork followed up on and made into something significant, and that wasn’t the case here. While I appreciate the effort both guys put into trying to soften each other up, there didn’t appear to be any consequence from Kojima or Tenryu’s legwork once the finishers began being thrown. Having more airtight psychology and having continuity between those limbwork segments and the finish would’ve brought this match to an even higher level. But without that cohesiveness, the match falls a bit short in terms of historic greatness.
There’s still something interesting in this match, though. Tenryu turning the block back to his prime in order to beat a hungry and unyielding Kojima made for an exciting match. The finishing stretch was awesome, but the journey there was a bit too tedious and slow. It’s an excellent match all the same, and one of the few bright spots from post-split All Japan.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.