There’s this belief among pro-wrestling fans that many wrestlers don’t bring their A-game when they wrestle for WWE. For many years, people have believed that wrestlers are forced to ‘tone down’ their style when they sign with WWE and that whatever we’re shown on WWE programming is a watered down of what those wrestlers are capable of. To see if this theory is really true, I scoured the internet to find matches featuring current and former WWE wrestlers wrestling outside WWE. in doing so, I found ten examples of wrestlers wrestling in Japan, where it’s said that in-ring abilities are more important than anything else.
What we’ve got here are five more wrestling matches in which WWE superstars wrestled in Japan, either before, during or after their WWE careers. I’ll be rating these matches on a scale of one star to five (hey, it’s simple but it works) to see how well these matches hold up.
5. IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match: Chris Jericho vs. Tetsuya Naito – NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 13
Background: This is the culmination of an almost-year-long storyline. In May 2018, Chris Jericho attacked Naito shortly after Naito won the IC title from Minoru Suzuki. A month later, Jericho beat Naito to win the title at Dominion 6.9, and then beat Naito’s then stablemate EVIL to retain said title shortly thereafter. Naito attacked Jericho again and, despite Jericho’s protests, NJPW announced that the two would face off for the title at WK13. But to placate Jericho, it was later announced that this match would be No Disqualification.
The match: Naito attacks Jericho from behind as Jericho poses with the IC title. They brawl and Naito whips Jericho into the barricade and then chokes him with his own scarf. He smashes Jericho into the announcer’s table as the bell rings and then lands a piledriver on the entrance ramp. Naito rips a turnbuckle off and hits Jericho in the head with it. This is No DQ so all of this is legal. He goes to whip Jericho into the padless corner, Jericho counters and whips Naito into the opposite corner. He charges but eats a kick and a hurricanrana from Naito. Naito sends him into the ropes and Jericho holds on, so Naito clotheslines him out of the ring. Naito goes to pose in the ring, changes his mind and goes for a dive, but as he reaches the ropes Jericho cracks him in the head with a kendo stick.
Jericho hits Naito with the stick a lot more and then starts choking him with it. He slaps Naito’s head to goad him into attacking, which Naito does, and Jericho sends him onto the apron and cracks him in the head once more. A triangle dropkick sends Naito falling to the floor.
Jericho grabs a camera to flip Naito the bird and lands a suplex on the ringside mats. Naito tries to escape into the crowd but Jericho gives chase and knees him in the back. Jericho drags Naito to the announce table and lands a big DDT on it. And this isn’t like WWE’s announce tables which are gimmicked to break, so Naito lands hard on an ordinary table. Jericho rings the bell himself, for no other reason than to get a cheap reaction.
Back in the ring, Jericho lands a top-rope diving crossbody for two. |Jericho mocks Hulk Hogan’s ear-cupping pose as Naito tries to fight back. Jericho drops him with a back elbow and lands a Lionsault for two. He lands a back suplex and starts straight up mocking and taunting Naito as the crowd makes lots of noise. But Naito has enough of Jericho’s nonsense and lands some hard punches and a flying forearm and both men go down.
Naito gets up first and lands another flying forearm and then whips Jericho into a corner. Jericho gets his feet up and Naito catches them and dares Jericho to kick him. Jericho does but Naito no-sells and then spits in Jericho’s face. He lands a rope-hung knee backbreaker and a swinging neckbreaker for two and then mocks Jericho with various cocky actions. Naito whips Jericho into a corner and goes for his corner dropkick, but Jericho counters into the Walls of Jericho. The crowd reacts big time, especially as Naito rolls through and tosses Jericho away.
Naito charges at Jericho but Jericho ducks and lands an enzuigiri. He goes for a Codebreaker but Naito counters into a tornado DDT. Naito lands his Gloria side powerslam for two. Naito goes for Destino. Jericho counters back into the Walls. Naito reaches out and grabs the kendo stick and whacks Jericho with it as hard as he can. He sends Jericho into the ropes and then swings that kendo stick like a baseball bat, striking Jericho hard in the gut. Naito goes for another big swing. Jericho counters into a Codebreaker. One, two, no, Naito kicks out.
Jericho takes advantage by tossing several chairs into the ring. He hits Naito with one of them and then goes to powerbomb him onto a stack of chairs. But Naito counters with a DDT. Jericho goes face-first into those chairs. Naito lands his own Codebreaker on Jericho. Jericho kicks out of a pin. Naito grabs the kendo stick and goes to the top rope. Jericho counters by throwing a chair at Naito. Jericho tries to suplex Naito from the top rope onto the chairs. Naito counters with a German suplex. Naito charges for Destino. Jericho blocks it and throws the referee aside and low blows Naito as the ref’s vision is blocked. Another Codebreaker by Jericho. And another kick-out by Naito. Jericho grabs the IC title and taunts Naito. Jericho charges…but Naito flapjacks him and sends him face-first into the exposed corner. Destino. One, two, no, Jericho barely kicks out. Naito grabs the belt and smashes Jericho’s face with it. Another Destino. One, two, three! Naito gets the win after 22:35!
Review: That was a fun match. Jericho did a good job being a ruthless and arrogant villain. He used every dirty trick he could, from liberal weapon shots to a nasty DDT onto the announce desk. But that wasn’t enough to deter Naito. He matched Jericho’s arrogance with his own and used Jericho’s own tactics against him in a fitting piece of poetic justice. I just wish Jericho went a bit further with his brutality given how serious this feud was. I also think he should’ve kept the silliness and campiness down to a minimum considering the stakes involved here.
Final Rating: ****
4. IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Giant Bernard – New Japan Soul 2011, July 18th, 2011
Background: Giant Bernard (a.k.a. [Prince] Albert/A-Train/[Lord] Tensai/Matt Bloom) left WWE in 2004 and became a monster heel in Japan. But unlike other token gaijin monsters, Bernard was actually a solid grappler. He showed he could wrestle incredibly well and could tell a great story in the ring. In fact, he was so impressive in this match that it was the catalyst to WWE re-signing him in 2012.
The match: They lock-up and Bernard gets a quick schoolboy pin for 2.75. He gets in Tanahashi’s face on how close that was which only angers the champion. They lock up again and Tanahashi wrestles into his own school boy also for 2.75 and then mocks Bernard in the same way. Bernard lands an amateur take down but Tanahashi quickly wrestles into a hammerlock. He counters by grabbing Tanahashi’s leg but Tanahashi quickly wrestled back into the armlock. Bernard uses his size advantage to pull Tanahashi into a different position, but Tanahashi bridges over Bernard all while maintaining control of the arm. Tanahashi does a tremendous job of controlling his much larger opponent by his arm, and then drapes it over the ropes right after a ropebreak. Tanahashi drapes Bernard’s neck over the rope and smashes both his knees against the ring apron. He goes for a figure-4 in the ring and applies it fully despite Bernard’s resistance. Bernard manages to roll over to reverse it but Tanahashi soon counters that and reapplies the figure-4 on Bernard. They go back-and-forth like this until Bernard reaches the ropes.
Tanahashi goes for an Irish whip but Bernard counters it. Tanahashi bounces off the ropes and Bernard lands a huge dropkick to Tanahashi’s knee. Yes, a 350-pound mammoth of a man dropkicks Tanahashi’s knee. He proceeds to sell it like his knee has been blown to bits, which it might as well have been. Bernard takes control with a big slam and then chokes Tanahashi while he’s caught in the tree of woe. He follows with some elbow drops and a massive splash directly onto Tanahashi’s back for a two-count.
Bernard lands forearms to the small of Tanahashi’s back, and when Tanahashi tries to fight back, Bernard overpowers him with a Derailleur/Canadian backbreaker drop. Bernard clubs Tanahashi’s head and chest, and then punches him off the turnbuckle to the floor when Tanahashi prepares for a dive. Bernard gives chase and goes for a powerbomb on the ringside mats. But Tanahashi counters at the last second with a Frankensteiner. Tanahashi tries to capitalize but Bernard overpowers him and then slams him back-first onto the steel barricade. Ouch.
Bernard poses with Tanahashi’s IWGP Heavyweight title as Tanahashi struggles to move. He eventually makes it into the ring despite Bernard’s insults and taunts, and then tries for an abdominal stretch. But that fails and Bernard counters into one of his own, targeting Tanahashi’s back even more. Bernard follows with a side slam for two and then whips Tanahashi hard into the corner. He lands a corner body block and goes for a Vaderbomb but Tanahashi escapes and then starts dodging Bernard’s strikes. Tanahashi starts making his comeback with flying forearms. He goes for a German suplex but Bernard fights out. Bernard attempts a bicycle kick, but Tanahashi catches his leg and lands a dragon screw leg whip. Then, somehow, Tanahashi gets the big man up for the Texas Cloverleaf, but Bernard gets to the ropes quickly. Tanahashi ends up on the ropes but skins the cat, only to turn around and eat a successful bicycle kick from Bernard. Bernard pins but only gets two.
Bernard misses a corner body block and eats a slingblade but he bounces up right away, nodding his head. Tanahashi connects with another one and pins, but Bernard kicks out with authority, launching Tanahashi off of himself. Tanahashi charges again. Bernard catches him and lands a chokebomb. Both men collapse. They trade forearms. Bernard gets up first and tackles Tanahashi to the mat. Tanahashi fires up and clotheslines Bernard out of the ring. He follows up with a plancha. Bernard sidesteps, and then powerbombs Tanahashi into the side of the apron. The referee starts counting. He gets to eighteen when Bernard stops him. Bernard wants to win the title so he orders Tanahashi to get back in. Tanahashi gets onto the apron and Bernard charges for a kick. Tanahashi catches his leg and lands another dragon screw. He goes to the top rope for the high Fly Flow. Tanahashi dives…and eats a kick to the gut from Bernard’s bad leg. Bernard follows with a torture rack neckbreaker. I’ve always loved that move. Bernard pins but Tanahashi kicks out. Running splash. Tanahashi kicks out. Last Ride Powerbomb. Tanahashi still kicks out. Bernard goes for a sitting Tombstone Piledriver. Tanahashi fights out and into a slingblade. Bernard fights out of a German suplex so Tanahashi dropkicks his knee. another dragon screw and another slingblade. Tanahashi follows with not one but two HFFs. One, two, thr – no, Bernard kicks out. Bernard charges but walks into a bridging German suplex. He kicks out so Tanahashi tries a dragon suplex. Bernard fights out of that so Tanahashi traps his arms and lands an armtrap German. That’s enough for Tanahashi to get the pin and retain his title after 27:54.
Review: Astonishingly good match. Bernard, the same man that recycled gimmick after gimmick and danced around in women’s lingerie in WWE, had a career best performance here. Though to be fair, he did face Tanahashi, who was a godly wrestler, even back then. This match was way better than it had any right to be. Tanahashi brought Bernard to his level and made Bernard wrestle at his pace. But what Bernard lacked in conditioning and technique he made up for in being a literal monster. He stood almost a foot taller than Tanahashi and outweighed him by well over 100 pounds. And Bernard used those differences to his advantage. He out-powered and out-struck Tanahashi throughout the match and brutalized Tanahashi’s back so much that Tanahashi couldn’t rely on any moves that required his back strength. So Tanahashi was forced to rely on craftiness and speed, as seen with his plethora of slingblades and a surprise crafty modified German suplex to get the win. This match made Bernard look like a legit monster and a credible threat while Tanahashi left the match looking like he had been to Hell and back. Everyone won here. Small wonder, then, that WWE scooped Bernard up soon after to try to replicate this sort of thing in their rings.
Final Rating: ****
3. Kenta Kobashi vs. Vader – AJPW January 15th, 1999
Background: Vader debuted in All Japan in December 1998 following a highly disappointing run in WWF/E. upon his AJPW debut, he and Stan Hansen won the 1998 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League, arguably the most prestigious and important tag team tournament in the world. A month later, he began his push as AJPW’s new gaijin/foreign monster, which led him to a singles match against the legendary Kenta Kobashi. Many people consider this to be one of Vader’s best-ever matches, so let’s take a closer look at it.
The match: Kobashi has his head taped up due to an injury. The bell rings and Kobashi gets a clean break on the ropes. They lock up a second time and Vader takes him down and immediately starts putting pressure on his injured head. Vader transitions into a head-and-arm submission then rolls over for a pin but Kobashi kicks out at one. On their third lock-up Vader lands some body punches but Kobashi starts blocking them and fires back with chops and hard slaps to Vader’s face. Kobashi suddenly fires up and lands some punches, which is rare for him to do. A now-unmasked Vader counters an Irish whip and goes for a clothesline but Kobashi ducks and takes him off his feet with a shoulder tackle. Kobashi lands some grounded punches and when Vader goes to block him, Kobashi grabs his arm and applies a cross armbreaker. Vader resists as much as he can and as soon as his arm is fully extended, Vader grabs the ropes with his foot.
Vader escapes to ringside to recover and then lands a big punch to kobashi’s head when Kobashi rushes him on the apron. A bunch of stiff punches and clotheslines drop Kobashi once more. Vader applies a grounded dragon sleeper and tries to pin with it, forcing Kobashi to get a shoulder up which only worsens Vader’s pressure on his neck. Vader follows with head-butts and a running splash for a two-count. suddenly Kobashi lands a desperation dropkick to Vader’s knee and both men go down. He follows that up with two dragon screw leg whips and starts working that leg over deeply and thoroughly. But Kobashi’s momentum is stopped as Vader drops him with a huge uppercut. He tosses Kobashi out of the ring and goes for a powerbomb on the mats but Kobashi resists. Vader answers with more hard punches and palm strikes. Powerbomb connects. Kobashi gets lifted high into the air and then smashed onto the ringside mats.
Vader walks into the crowd and grabs a folding chair. Then he cracks Kobashi right on the head with it. Brutal. In the ring, Vader gets another two-count off another splash and the crowd starts chanting for Kobashi. He sends Kobashi into the ropes and then nails him with a huge clothesline, and then dares Kobashi to get back up. Vader lands more stiff corner strikes and whips Kobashi into another corner, but Kobashi dodges at the last second to avoid Vader’s corner charge. Kobashi lands a desperation DDT out of nowhere and fights back with chops. He lands machine gun chops in the corner and then drops Vader with a stiff rolling chop to the neck. A big side kick sends Vader over the rope and out of the ring. Kobashi follows with a plancha over the ropes and onto Vader. Man, this guy’s a machine.
At ringside, Kobashi sends Vader into the barricade and follows with more punches. As Vader gets onto the apron, Kobashi goes to suplex him over the ropes and into the ring. Vader resists and lands another stiff head-butt but Kobashi lands a big kick to his gut. Then Kobashi channels his inner burning spirit and somehow vertical suplexes Vader. Wow, what strength. But Kobashi isn’t done as he hands a back suplex for a two-count. He follows that with a diving shotgun dropkick that also gets two. Scoop slam. Kobashi goes to the top rope. Diving moonsault press…misses. Vader rolls out of the way.
Kobashi lands a running knee in the corner and a Russian leg sweep, then rips off the bandage on his head to fire up. The crowd is very much behind him at this point. Kobashi goes for a running lariat but Vader ducks. Both men lariat each other and they both go down. Kobashi charges, but Vader hits harder with a body block. Vader goes to the second rope and jumps, but Kobashi counters into a powerslam in mid-air for two. Another scoop slam by Kobashi. Diving moonsault press connects! One, two, no, Vader kicks out. Kobashi’s stunned so he pins again. And Vader still kicks out. Vader lands a sudden stiff punch out of nowhere and slams Kobashi hard. Then he goes to the top rope. DIVING MOONSAULT PRESS BY VADER! One, two, NO, Kobashi kicks out at 2.9!
Both men fight in the middle of the ring trading stiff blows. Vader sends Kobashi into a corner and lands a running body block, followed by a huge German suplex. Then he lands not one but two Vaderbombs (second rope body presses) for another pin. But Kobashi still kicks out. Vader follows with a second-rope splash. One, two, three! Vader gets the win after 19:11
Review: Awesome match. This is the Vader I wish we got in WWE. He was the man here as he mauled Kobashi like a grizzly bear. They told a great story here. Kobashi knew Vader was a major threat so he couldn’t be his typical respectful and sportsmanlike self. He needed to weaken Vader quickly and decisively, which is why he went on the desperation route early. But Vader countered Kobashi’s burning determination with a cheapshot by attacking his injured head. So Kobashi fought to overcome not only Vader’s unrelenting offense but his own body’s limitations. But despite Kobashi’s best efforts, Vader was too much for him here. Vader survived Kobashi’s biggest moves and even managed to out-perform Kobashi with his own moonsault. No matter how overdone that move might be, seeing a 400-pound-plus Vader land it perfectly is always an amazing sight. It was a classic example of David vs. Goliath, but this time David entered the battle not at 100% and Goliath took advantage of that to defeat his smaller opponent, albeit in a hard-fought battle. It was simple and it made perfect sense.
Final Rating: ****
2. IWGP Tag Team Championship Match: Hiroshi Hase & Kensuke Sasaki vs. The Steiners (Rick & Scott) – WCW/NJPW Starrcade in Tokyo Dome, March 21st, 1991
Background: NWA/WCW had a working relationship with New Japan for many years, and in 1991 the two companies hosted a joint supershow at the Tokyo Dome. For this match, Hase and Sasaki defended their coveted IWGP Tag Team Championships against Scott and Rick Steiner. At the time, both of them were known for being two extremely talented legit grappling geniuses and Scott invented the move now known as the Frankensteiner.
The match: Hase and Scott start things off. Scott quickly takes Hase down into a sharpshooter-type pin for some quick two-counts. Hase escapes a leg takedown but on their next lock-up Scott launches him with a quick suplex. Scott escapes a roll-up and charges but walks into a spinkick. A clothesline sends Scott out of the ring as Hase poses for the crowd. Scott returns and tags Rick so Hase tags Sasaki. Sasaki does some quick takedowns and simple wrestling until Rick gets him against the ropes. Rick shows some impressive athleticism for a man his size with some leapfrogs but Sasaki catches him in midair and powerslams him for a two-count. Sasaki follows with a running bulldog and a clothesline and then tags Hase. Hase attempts a takedown but Rick overpowers him and tags Scott, who lands a pumphandle drop followed by a top-rope delayed Olympic slam.
Rick tags back in and he drives Hase back into the corner chest-first and then lands a clothesline of his own. Scott tags in and lands a belly-to-belly for two. Hase tries to fight back but Scott plants him with a DDT. Rick tags in and lands a top-rope overhead belly-to-belly and pins but Sasaki makes the save. Scott tags in once again and Rick whips Hase into Scott to Scott can clothesline him. Hase kicks out of another pin so Scott applies a grounded submission hold as the crowd chants loudly for Hase. Scott sends Hase into the ropes but Hase ducks and lands a big clothesline of his own. But before Hase can capitalize, Scott double legs him and tags Rick, who lands a big German suplex. Scott tags in again and applies a chinlock, only for Hase to counter with his own belly-to-belly. But once again the Steiners maintain control with a tag and Rick applies a grounded headlock to keep Hase in place. Hase tries some amateur grappling escapes when suddenly he busts out a giant swing. Scott breaks that up, tags in, and lands a Tiger Driver but Sasaki breaks it up.
Scott tags Rick and the Steiners go for a double team move. But Hase kicks Scott and drops Rick with his patented uranage finisher. Then he uranages Scott. Sasaki tags in and goes wild. Dropkicks for both Steiners. Powerslam onto Rick. Scott saves his brother as the crowd boos. Sasaki maintains control with a running powerslam and then superplexes his partner Hase onto Rick. Hase’s the legal man as he connects with a bridging northern lights suplex. Rick kicks out at two. Hase charges and he and Rick hit each other simultaneously and both men go down. Scott tags in first and lands a dropkick and a tilt-a-whirl slam. Hase manages to tag Sasaki but Scott attacks him as he enters the ring. Scott goes for a back body drop but Sasaki counters with a DDT. The Japanese wrestlers go for the Steiners’ own tag team finisher, the Doomsday bulldog, but the Steiners block and hit that move on Sasaki. Scott signals the end. Frankensteiner connects. Rick holds Hase on the ropes as the referee counts one, two three! The Steiners win the IWGP Tag Team Championships after thirteen minutes.
Review: That was one of the best under-fifteen minute tag matches I’ve ever seen. It was almost perfect in terms of structure and flow. The Steiners were the perfect heel challengers that dominated the match with their quick tags and mastery of ring psychology. The Steiners showed exactly what being a tag team is all about. They isolated Hase from his partner and maintained control with multiple quick tags. They kept the interference to a minimum and kept their offensive approach grounded in a technical logic. They pummeled Hase for the most of the match, which made Hase’s struggle and Sasaki’s babyface hot tag much more satisfying. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the same level of greatness from Hase and Sasaki. Hase spent 80% of the match being manhandled yet somehow had the strength to bust out a giant swing out of nowhere in a strangely-placed spot. As for Sasaki, he was barely in the match at all and his babyface comebacks were short-lived. He didn’t have as much of an impact on the match as he should have and instead just became the guy that took the fall, even though Hase was by far the more weakened of the two of them.
Final Rating: ****1/4
1. Bryan Danielson vs. KENTA – NOAH, December 2nd, 2006
Background: This was a non-title singles match between two of the top smaller wrestlers of the mid-2000s. It was a rematch from their epic from ROH Glory by Honor three months earlier, which I reviewed here. That was one of the best matches I’ve ever seen, so let’s see if they can deliver once again.
The match: They shake hands and the match begins. They start with some great technical wrestling and Bryan starts working over KENTA’s left arm. KENTA reverses into his own arm hold but Bryan the technical whiz kid quickly reverses that and dropkicks KENTA, leading to a standoff. KENTA grapples into a headlock but Bryan wrestles out into a headscissor. KENTA escapes and lands his first of what will surely be many stiff slaps. They lock up again and Bryan goes for the arm but KENTA gets to the ropes, to which Bryan responds with his own stiff slap. That’s followed by a STIFF forearm/uppercut exchange and then Bryan counters an Irish whip with a hip toss into a cross armbreaker. KENTA rushes to the ropes for safety and Bryan is forced to let go.
Bryan’s in control as he lands a standing armbreaker, pins for two, and applies different arm-targeting submission holds. KENTA fights to the ropes and unleashes some stiff kicks to Bryan’s gut and then punts Bryan in the spine for a two-count. Bryan fights out of a headlock by getting to a corner so KENTA kicks him some more and then lands a neckbreaker for two. KENTA applies a Figure-4 neck lock but Bryan quickly wrestles out and then applies a variety of submission holds. First an STF, then a chinlock, then a Romero special, and finally a dragon sleeper/surfboard hold. He also makes sure to stomp on both of KENTA’s knees to make it harder for KENTA to land his patented GTS.
Bryan lands more standing armbreakers and KENTA fights back with kicks and (right arm) forearm smashes. KENTA goes for a suplex. Bryan counters with a grounded armbar. KENTA reaches the ropes but Bryan takes his time and does the least ‘I have until FIVE, referee’ spot I have ever seen him do. Bryan follows with yet another standing armbreaker, followed by a back suplex for two, and then a cool-looking dragon sleeper. Bryan lands some strikes and then hits a butterfly suplex into a cross armbreaker and KENTA reaches the ropes yet again.
Ten minutes have passed as Bryan lands another armbreaker and sends KENTA into a corner. Bryan charges but KENTA kicks him and charges, but runs into a back elbow. Bryan goes for a suplex, KENTA lands behind him and attempts a German, Bryan elbows out but runs into a powerslam. KENTA can’t capitalize because his arm’s too weakened. KENTA follows with kicks and sends Bryan into a corner but Bryan kicks him on a charge. Bryan goes for a dive but KENTA counters with an Ace Crusher/RKO for two. KENTA follows with his patented martial arts rush and a springboard dropkick, which also get him a two-count. KENTA sends Bryan into another corner but Bryan does the Tiger somersault flip and catches a charging KENTA with a backbreaker. Bryan follows with a diving head-butt that gets another two-count. That’s followed by another Bryan Danielson quick pin exchange that, strangely, gets only mild applause from the crowd. Bryan tries another sunset flip pin but KENTA counters with a huge bitchslap. KENTA lands a fisherman buster for two and goes for a diving kneedrop with an exposed knee, but Bryan gets hit foot up at the last second. Bryan goes to suplex KENTAS over the rope into the ring but KENTA counters and drops Bryan on the floor. KENTA goes for a dive. Bryan dodges and clotheslines KENTA over the barricade. Bryan’s not done. He dives from the ring to KENTA on the floor. What air. He even hits some fans and seems to hurt his knee in the process.
Both wrestlers reach the ring at the count of nineteen and Bryan lands a diving shotgun dropkick. He manages to kip-up Shawn Michaels-style, but his knee’s hurting him badly. But he fights through the pain and lands a running corner clothesline. He goes for a superplex. KENTA escapes by punching Bryan’s bad knee. Bryan charges again. KENTA counters with a tornado stungun and goes for a springboard clothesline. Bryan dodges and lands a picture-perfect bridging German suplex for two. Bryan goes for another suplex. KENTA escapes and lands a high kick and then locks in a Texas Cloverleaf. Great strategy by KENTA. He’s taking advantage of a possible injury Bryan caused himself. But it doesn’t last long as Bryan reaches the ropes.
KENTA remains in control with his own bridging German but only gets two. He goes for another martial arts rush but Bryan cuts him off with a bridging Regalplex for two. Bryan goes to the top rope despite his injured knee. KENTA leaps up there for a Falcon Arrow. Bryan escapes and lands a top-rope backdrop suplex. He pins but KENTA kicks out. Cattle Mutilation! KENTA reaches the ropes and Bryan goes down clasping his knee.
Both men get up and trade strikes. Back-and-forth they go with heads-butts, forearms, kicks and uppercuts. Bryan tries to take control with a crossface chickenwing. KENTA counters into another cloverleaf hold. Bryan can’t reach the ropes so he rolls into a cradle. KENTA escapes and slaps the taste out of Bryan’s mouth. He goes for a running knee but Bryan lands a kneelift. Bryan follows with elbows to the collar. KENTA looks like he’s out cold. Bryan pins. One, two, thr – no, KENTA’s still alive. Bryan locks in Cattle Mutilation once more. KENTA starts reaching out to the ropes with his feet. Bryan responds by rolling in the opposite direction and reapplying the hold. KENTA struggles and struggles and eventually he reaches the ropes.
Bryan signals the end as he clasps both of KENTA’s arms. KENTA fights free and goes for the GTS. Bryan escapes and lands a perfect bridging Tiger suplex for another narrow two-count. Bryan tries Cattle Mutilation again. KENTA rolls on top of him for a pin. Bryan kicks out and then both men kick each other. Bryan charges but runs into a pop-up RKO. Martial arts rush by KENTA, followed by the running Busaiku knee. One, two, no, Bryan kicks out. KENTA lands another knee against the ropes and charges for the full-power Busaiku knee. But Bryan counters with a European clutch, only for KENTA to escape. Bryan dodges a roundhouse kick and rolls KENTA up for yet another two-count. Strike exchange. Misawa rolling elbow by Bryan. KENTA tries the same but Bryan ducks and goes for a backslide. KENTA escapes and lands several high kicks to Bryan’s head. Go To Sleep connects! One, two, three! KENTA wins after 25:21.
Review: If this match happed in 2020/2021 under a COVID/no fans setting, it would probably be hailed as being on the same level as WALTER/Ilja from NXT UK 2020. Instead, it gets largely forgotten because the crowd does not react to this match whatsoever. I don’t know why, but the audience barely reacted to anything these two wrestlers did. Forget about the ‘quiet, studious Japanese fan’ cliché. I’ve seen hundreds of Japanese wrestling matches and fans always at least made some noise as a show of appreciation or interest. But there was barely any of that here. Despite showcasing some truly out-of-this-world wrestling, most stuff barely elicited anything more than a golf clap. Personally, I think that’s ridiculous because this match was outstanding. It was a worthy successor to the epic they had in ROH three months earlier. The wrestling here was crisp and smooth, the action was intense, the selling was mostly consistent and realistic, and both wrestlers demonstrated incredible psychology and storytelling abilities. There was a bit of inconsistent selling from KENTA (Bryan works an arm or leg one minute and KENTA’s using those limbs at max capacity moments later) but I guess that’s just par for the course with him at this point.
But pro-wrestling isn’t just about technique; it’s also about feeling and atmosphere, and this match lacked both. It was almost a carbon copy of their ROH match, which took place in front of a raucous crowd that elevated it even further. So I give this match as good of a rating as I can for its in-ring quality, in spite of the apathetic crowd response. At the same time, this is a hidden gem of a Bryan Danielson match so I strongly recommend you seek it out when you can.
Final Rating: ****1/2
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