Match Reviews: Former WWE Stars in Japan (Chris Jericho, Vader vs. Misawa, Sabu, more)

njpw chris jericho el samurai

It’s amazing how sometimes all it takes is a slight change of scenery for a wrestler’s fortunes to change. There have been many cases where a wrestler ends up floundering stateside but finds much more success in Japan.

It makes sense when you think about it: if you’re great at the actual mechanics of wrestling but aren’t necessarily the best showman, you’re better off in places where the mechanics are appreciated more.

That’s what we have here. Once again I’ve found five matches involving former WWE wrestlers competing in Japan. Were they better across the ocean than they were in the companies that “made them famous”? Read on to find out.

5. John ‘Earthquake’ Tenta vs. Koji Kitao – SWS March 30th, 1991

Background: John Tenta went through many names during his first WWE run. He was known as “Earthquake Evans”, “Canadian Earthquake”, and then just “Earthquake”. He achieved moderate success as both a singles star and as a tag team alongside Tugboat/Typhoon called ‘The Natural Disasters’, and when his time in WWE ended he easily found work in Japan. That’s because he was a highly accomplished sumo wrestler prior to becoming a pro-wrestler, and Japanese companies were always in need of big scary foreign monsters for their matches. Here, Tenta took on Koji Kitao in a normal singles match for a company called Super World of Sports.

Note: This is not the famous ‘Kitao shoot’ match. I’ll review that match another time.

The match: Tenta gets a headlock but Kitao shoots him into the ropes. Neither man budges on a shoulder tackle and then the reverse happens with Tenta escaping Kitao’s headlock. Kitao retaliates with a sudden clothesline and a kneelift that send Tenta into the ropes. Tenta gets a boot up and clotheslines Kitao. The two trade stiff strikes and then do the Grec-Roman knuckle lock. Kitao hits first with kicks and tries another clothesline but Tenta barely moves. Tenta dodges another one, hits a body check, and then a back elbow off the ropes. He goes for a bearbug but Kitao fights out. Tenta charges with more overhand punches and a jumping kick, and then locks in a sleeper hold. Kitao gets to the ropes, avoids a body check and hits a kick/Backdrop suplex combo for a two-count. He hits more stiff martial arts kicks but Tenta catches his leg and powerslams him. Tenta follows with an elbow drop and the Earthquake running press for the pin and the win.

Winner after 6:10: John “Earthquake” Tenta.

Review: Nothing special here. The crowd reacted big time because both of them were ex-sumo wrestlers and I think SWS was trying to be more ‘shoot-like’. Everything was very basic so the action was very easy to follow. But for such a short match it didn’t really have any tension. Just lots of staring, circling, and random strikes. Both Kitao and Tenta got control out of nowhere hit moves in such a way that made the match feel rushed. But at least this match actually had a finish…unlike their next one.

Final Rating: *1/2


4. Sabu & Gary Albright vs. Kenta Kobashi & The Patriot – AJPW World’s Strongest Tag Determination League 1996, November 29th, 1996

Background: In 1996, Kenta Kobashi split away from Mitsuharu Misawa and later in the year he became Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. But by splitting, he ended up without a regular partner for the most part. Johnny Ace, a guy he teamed with many times before, was being pushed as “Dr. Death” Steve Williams’ new main partner. So instead, Kobashi found a new partner in Del “The Patriot” Wilkes. This was before Patriot’s short and underwhelming WWE run. Meanwhile, Albright was a superheavyweight from UWFi that joined All Japan after that company closed its doors while Sabu was invited to wrestle in Japan after developing a reputation for being an incredible worker.

The match: Kobashi and Albright start things off. Albright easily overpowers Kobashi and throws him overhead. Albright blocks several shots from Kobashi and lands his own but Kobashi hits a low kick and goes for a suplex. Except Albright’s much bigger and stronger and reverses with a suplex of his own. Sabu tags in and Kobashi dodges a takedown and tags Patriot. Sabu lands some shots in as Patriot hits head-butts. Patriot sends Sabu into the ropes but Sabu holds onto them to avoid a huge kick. Patriot hits some more strikes but Sabu ducks underneath him and hits a springboard splash and tags Albright. The two wrestle and grapple to the mat for a bit until Sabu tags back in. Patriot gains control over Sabu and tags Kobashi, who chops Sabu so hard he falls down. Sabu tries hitting back but he’s no match for Kobashi. Instead, Sabu blocks a suplex and pulls Kobashi to his corner to tag Albright. Albright grabs Kobashi’s leg but Kobashi hits an enzuigiri. He hits a chop but Albright explodes with a flurry of forearms and another overhead suplex for a two-count. Albright applies a chinlock and then gets another two-count. Sabu tags in and gets a one-count off a roll-up and starts working Kobashi’s leg until Patriot stops him. Patriot tags in and goes for a back body drop but Sabu flips over him and dropkicks his shoulder. Albright tags in and lands a belly-to-belly suplex and goes for a cross armbreaker. Sabu tries to hold Kobashi back but Kobashi pushes him aside and saves Patriot.

Kobashi tags in and chops Albright but Albright overpowers him with a Backdrop suplex. Albright tags Sabu and sets him up for his corner Air Sabu press. Then Sabu whips Kobashi into Albright who lands a powerslam. One, two, Patriot saves Kobashi. Sabu follows with a slingshot leg drop for another two-count. He tries working Kobashi’s arm but Kobashi chops back and slams Sabu. Sabu cuts Kobashi off on the top rope and lands a Super Frankensteiner. Albright tags in and lands a splash for another two-count and then locks in a full nelson with bodyscissors. Patriot saves Kobashi so Albright throws Kobashi to the floor. Patriot tags Sabu and sets him up again. Sabu jumps onto Albright, onto the ropes and…not onto Kobashi. Kobashi dodges and tags Patriot. He makes a comeback with tackles and clotheslines but only manages a two-count. He dumps Sabu to the floor and Kobashi whips Sabu into Patriot’s waiting clothesline arm. Kobashi tags in and lands a vertical suplex for a two-count and locks in a Boston Crab until Albright breaks it up. Kobashi hits double kneelifts to Sabu for another two-count and tags Patriot. Patriot lands a back suplex but hurts his own shoulder in the process. He tries fighting with one arm and manages a corner clothesline and then tags Kobashi, who lands a Russian leg sweep for another two-count. Albright clotheslines Kobashi to stop an abdominal stretch but Kobashi leglocks Sabu and tags Patriot.

Patriot misses a corner splash and Sabu hits a springboard kick. Albright tags in and hits some kneelifts and another overhead suplex. He locks in a cross armbreaker but Kobashi stomps on him to break it. Albright goes for a suplex but Patriot blocks so he tries another armbar. Patriot rolls out, hits a clothesline, and tags Kobashi. Kobashi hits a running neckbreaker but Sabu breaks up the pin. Kobashi teases a powerbomb but Albright powers out. Kobashi pushes Albright into a forearm from Patriot and lands a German suplex. Sabu stops a half-nelson suplex but gets knocked down by both Kobashi and Patriot. Patriot tries powerbombing Albright but his arm is still weak, so he clotheslines Albright into Kobashi, who lands another German. Kobashi pins but Albright gets a ropebreak. Kobashi lands a legdrop to Albright’s neck as Sabu lands a springboard hurricanrana to the floor. Kobashi goes for a running lariat but Sabu catches his legs. Albright goes for a German. Kobashi rolls through into a kneebar. Sabu hits Kobashi with another slingshot leg drop. Patriot knocks Sabu to the floor as Albright Germans Kobashi. chaos ensues as everyone ends up in the ring and Sabu uses Albright as a stepping stool to kick Patriot to the floor. Sabu flies into Kobashi and Albright drops Kobashi with another German. Albright switches into a release dragon suplex and pins. One, two, and three! Albright pins Kobashi to win the match!

Winners after 17:14: Sabu & Gary Albright


Review: Great match but nothing out of this world. It looked like everyone here was new to wrestling each other so they kept things simple and straightforward. Sabu did his biggest spots and flips and I’m surprised he got as big of a reaction as he did since that’s pretty much all he did. Albright did most of the heavy lifting and came across as a big deal after constantly thwarting and then later pinning Kobashi. Speaking of which, Kobashi was his usual overachieving self here, doing as much as possible and giving fans their money’s worth. Though, that was expected since he was world champion here. How Albright didn’t earn a title shot by pinning him is beyond me. Lastly, Patriot was fine, though it seemed like he either injured himself during this match or a pre-existing injury kept nagging him to the point he couldn’t ignore it. Patriot did very simple tackles and slams, which was fine since he was basically a one-armed man in an ass-kicking contest. But I had better expectations given who he was sharing the ring with.

Final Rating: ***1/4


3. El Samurai vs. Chris Jericho – NJPW Best Of the Super Juniors 1997, May 25th, 1997

Background: The BOSJ tournament was and still is the premier junior heavyweight tournament in the world. Over the decades many wrestlers have become bigger stars by competing in this prestigious tournament. After seeing guys like Chris Benoit, Eddy Guerrero, Brian Pillman, and many others get elevated from this tournament, Chris Jericho decided to do the same. But standing in front of him was El Samurai, one of New Japan’s top cruiserweights and the pupil of the legendary Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger.

The match: They lock-up and Samurai gets a clean break. They do some great chain wrestling that ends in a chinlock for Jericho. Jericho switches to a double-arm stretch but Samurai drop toeholds him to escape and locks in a camel clutch. Jericho escapes via electric chair suplex and follows with a delayed vertical suplex for a two-count. Samurai escapes Jericho’s control and lands a swinging neckbreaker for a two-count of his own. Samurai does the same submission holds as Jericho did earlier but Jericho kicks his way out and hits some stiff chops against the ropes. Jericho follows with a slam/slingshot splash combo for a one-count. He lands a sidewalk slam and then a backbreaker into a back stretch but Samurai escapes and single legs Jericho to start working his leg. Samurai switches into an STF/chinlock move that’s similar to the Red Ink move Kazuchika Okada would use over a decade later. Jericho escapes Samurai’s holds and the two start brawling. Samurai monkey flips Jericho and hits a baseball slide dropkick, sending Jericho into the barricade. He smashes Jericho onto the ringpost and goes for a corner Irish whip in the ring. Jericho reverses it and Samurai goes for a headstand reversal but Jericho counters that as well. Jericho lands an Alabama Slam and pins for a two-count and applies the Liontamer submission hold. The proper one with Jericho’s victim stretched fully as Jericho stands up and puts one leg on his opponent’s head. The move that actually looks nasty. Samurai gets a ropebreak so Jericho hits him with a wheel kick. Then Jericho dropkicks him to the floor and lands a triangle splash onto Samurai as well.

Both men return to the ring so Jericho slams him and lands a top-rope body splash for a two-count. He goes for a sleeper hold with bodyscissors but Samurai gets another ropebreak. Jericho goes for a slingshot back suplex but Samurai lands on his feet but gets dumped outside. Samurai ends up back on the apron and Jericho goes for another triangle dropkick but misses this time. Samurai follows with a dive through the ropes of his own. Both men go down.

Samurai makes it in first and Jericho barely makes it back in in time. The two trade counters until Samurai lands an inverted DDT. Samurai avoids more attacks from Jericho and lands a second inverted DDT. Samurai follows with a kneeling powerbomb but only gets a two-count. Then he lands a Super Frankensteiner from the top rope. Wait, Jericho reverses the pin. No, Samurai reverses it back but Jericho kicks out at one. Samurai slams Jericho and goes for a top-rope splash but Jericho dodges. Jericho cradles him but Samurai kicks out at 2.75. Jericho reverses a corner whip but Samurai boots him and goes for a tornado DDT. But Jericho reverses into a bridging northern lights suplex for another two-count. Jericho’s follow-up Lionsault misses. Samurai hits a lariat and goes to the top rope. Jericho cuts him off and goes for a superplex. But something goes wrong and both men fall to the floor. That’s a pretty bad landing but both men continue the match. They try the same spot again and this time Jericho lands a Super Frankensteiner of his own. One, two, three! Jericho wins!

Winner after 15:12: Chris Jericho

Review: Solid match with lots of cool technical wrestling and creative counters. Both guys did well here with all their last-minute reversals and high-flying acrobatics. They did some brawling in there as well so it was like a ‘complete’ performance from both of them. The ending was a bit deflating given that it was botched and then they repeated the spot right away. Gotta stay on script, I guess. Plus there were some long submission sequences that were largely ignored, which didn’t make too much sense given how important the Liontamer was to Jericho’s arsenal. The match was fun while it lasted and was nice and competitive from bell to bell.

Final Rating: ***1/4


2. Chris Hero vs. Yuji Nagata – NOAH N-1 Victory 2014, August 18th, 2014

Background: Pro Wrestling NOAH created its own annual tournament called the Global League (later renamed to the N-1 Victory) in 2011. By 2014 it had attracted several names from outside the company to help increase the company’s fledging visibility at the time. one of them was Chris Hero (a.k.a. Kassius Ohno in NXT), a veteran of the American independent scene who was a BIG fan of NOAH founder Mitsuharu Misawa and modeled much of his wrestling style after the Emerald Emperor. The other was Yuji Nagata, New Japan’s former world champion and longtime workhorse of the company. By the 2010s, his time at the top in his come company had come and gone, but he still had a lot left in the tank so he found work outside NJPW through various working relationships.

The match: After a pose-off to get the crowd excited, they do some great chain grappling that ends with Nagata in a cravate hold. Nagata gets a clean break and teases doing a Greco-Roman knuckle lock but then lands a low kick to play mind games with Hero. Hero does the same trick and lands a stiff chop. The two trade strikes until Hero lands a STIFF elbow smash to Nagata’s jaw. Hero covers but only gets a two-count. Nagata escapes a headlock but gets tackled to the mat, yet rolls out of the way to avoid a senton splash. Hero avoids a big running kick to the head, leading to a stalemate.

Hero exposes his chest for a chop like a man but Nagata kicks him in the gut instead. Nagata follows with middle kicks but Hero answers those with another STIFF elbow smash. Hero pins again but Nagata barely kicks out. Nagata hits elbows of his own and charges but runs into a pump kick from Hero. Hero follows with a kick through the ropes to the floor and goes to whip Nagata into the barricade but Nagata reverses. Hero hits the barricade and Nagata boots him. He smashes Hero into anything metal and tosses him back into the ring where he starts working Hero’s leg. Hero gets a ropebreak to escape a leglock so Naghata kicks the back of the leg he just stretched. He sends Hero into the ropes but Hero does the Misawa skin the cat/rope flip. Nagata avoids a boot and hits his own elbow smash. Then he drapes Hero over the top rope and lands a dragon screw neckbreaker. Such a nasty move should get a bigger reaction but I digress. Nagata lands some stiff kicks and goes for an Exploder suplex but Hero resists and hits some elbows. He follows with chops and another nasty elbow smash but Nagata hits back with kicks. He charges but Hero cuts him off with a running kick to the head. Both wrestlers go down.

Hero hits a chop/kick combo followed by a swinging neckbreaker. He lands a running corner clothesline, catches Nagata’s leg on a kick, and lands a big boot to the face for another two-count. Hero goes for a Misawa rolling elbow but Nagata slaps him first and hits a corner boot. Nagata lands an Exploder suplex but only manages a two-count. Hero resists a suplex so Nagata kicks him hard. Nagata tries again but Hero counters into a crash landing release suplex. Rolling elbow smash! One, two, Nagata kicks out. Hero goes for a KO back of the head elbow but Nagata hits first and lands a wheel kick. Nagata goes for his corner Justice kneelift but Hero gets him in the powerbomb position. Nagata escapes but Hero lands another elbow smash. Stiff strike exchange. Hero goes for another rolling elbow. Nagata counters into a Nagata Lock II/Dis-Arm-Her. Hero gets a ropebreak with his foot so Nagata goes for a Backdrop suplex. Hero elbows out and hits another running kick. Hero charges again but Nagata avoids his kick and lands a German suplex for another two-count. Hero tries yet another rolling elbow but Nagata hits first with an enzuigiri. Nagata signals the end and lands a bridging Backdrop suplex. One, two, three! Nagata wins!

Winner after 13:28: Yuji Nagata

Review: Fun, competitive match. Both wrestlers hit each other very hard and used as many of their biggest moves as they could. Hero was clearly channeling Misawa with all his elbows but Nagata saw through the tributes and used that to his advantage. After hitting each other brutally hard, Nagata decided to bait Hero into using another rolling elbow. He succeeded and turned that into an armbar that almost rendered Hero’s elbows useless. He still relied on that move towards the very end but Nagata had learned of his strategy and used speed over power. Nagata found enough openings to break through Hero’s defenses and hit enough big moves to win the match. It was fine as a throwaway match, though a bit disappointing as well since Hero didn’t incorporate Nagata’s submissions into his comeback, nor did he really adapt his strategy after it became obvious that Nagata had him scouted. Having a one-track mind or one single strategy in wrestling can easily backfire, as this match proved.

Final Rating: ***1/4


1. AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship Match: Mitsuharu Misawa [c] vs. Vader – AJPW, October 30th, 1999

Background: After his disappointing WWE run, Vader returned to Japan and managed to do so with his fearsome reputation more or less intact. Within four months of debuting for All Japan, Vader won the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship, becoming one of a handful of wrestlers to win the world titles of both All Japan and New Japan. He lost it to Misawa two months later, but Vader bided his time until he earned a rematch. After Misawa defended the title successfully against Kenta Kobashi and then Toshiaki Kawada, Vader how set his sights on regaining the same prize.

The match: This is for Misawa’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. After a long period of teasing and tense stare-downs, Vader breaks a lock-up with a stiff slap and taunts Misawa. Misawa’s happy to oblige and stiffs him with elbows but Vader hits back with his trademark Vader Hammer strikes. Vader goes for a German suplex but Misawa holds onto the ropes for dear life. Vader tries to lock in a sleeper but Misawa resists that as well. Misawa tries everything he can to resist but Vader claps his ears and launches him with a huge German suplex. Misawa lands almost on his forehead. But Vader’s not done as he lands two more. Misawa tries getting up but he collapses. Vader knows this guy’s known for his toughness so he lands a standing and then a second-rope splash before covering. One, two, Misawa kicks out. Misawa tries fighting out of a corner with elbows but Vader stiffs him to shut him down. Vader slams Misawa and goes for the moonsault but Misawa cuts him off, only to get punched in the nose. Vader goes for an ax handle but Misawa hits an elbow smash. That’s followed by a rolling elbow and a one-count for Misawa. Misawa teases a Tiger Driver but Vader gets to the ropes. Vader answers with an eye poke and tries another German but Misawa elbows out. Then Misawa Germans Vader. Misawa follows with another elbow and a second German for his own. Misawa pins but only gets two. A diving dropkick sends Vader to the floor so Misawa goes to the top rope. Diving elbow smash to the floor. Misawa follows with an apron senton press. But Misawa’s not done. Elbow suicida! Misawa hits Vader so hard he hurts himself in the process. Vader takes advantage with a powerbomb on the ringside mats. Then he tosses Misawa into the ring and lands a Brainbuster. One, two, Misawa kicks out. Vader goes for another powerbomb but Misawa escapes and hits more elbows. Vader reverses a corner whip and goes for a body block but Misawa sidesteps and hits a Backdrop suplex. He follows with a frog splash but only manages a two-count. Vader ducks one running elbow smash but can’t dodge the next one. Misawa pins but Vader kicks out again. Misawa follows with a successful Tiger Driver on the 400-plus-pound Vader. One, two, Vader kicks out. Misawa goes for another top-rope elbow. Vader counters with a powerslam and then sits on him twice. Vader follows with a body splash for another two-count. Big chokeslam by Vader. Misawa kicks out at 2.8! Vader picks Misawa up but Misawa lands desperation elbow strikes. He goes for a running one but Vader smacks his head hard. Vader signals the end and lands a Folding Powerbomb. One, two, and three! There’s the match! Vader beats Misawa for the coveted Triple Crown!

Winner and NEW AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 12:12: Vader

Review: That was an awesome under-fifteen-minute match. It was as if Misawa trimmed all the fat out of his usual match layout and just went for his biggest bombs. He hoped that playing the hits and avoiding needless limbwork that wouldn’t work on such a massive opponent would lead him to victory. But that didn’t work. Vader mauled Misawa and never relented. He sent a message right away and spiked Misawa right on his head. Vader just threw bomb after bomb at Misawa and barely gave him time to breathe. Misawa managed to land a few big moves here and there but Vader was still one step ahead. THIS is how Vader should’ve been booked in WWE. He had this threatening aura and he proved it by taking the fight to the company’s legendary ace almost immediately. Misawa sold like he couldn’t get up (which was probably legit given how hard he landed) and struggled to have even the slightest of comebacks. He was so desperate that all his usual high-risk moves lived up to that term. He hurt himself on his elbow suicida. He took too long on the top rope and got slammed by Vader for it. Even trying to suplex Vader proved fruitless because Vader was just a damage sponge that couldn’t be felled that easily. This match was great for what it was. It didn’t need to go longer since the whole point was to make Vader as dangerous a monster as possible. After all, Kobashi couldn’t beat Misawa in over 40 minutes and Kawada couldn’t do it in just over twenty. Vader pinned Misawa in less than fifteen minutes and in doing so re-established the fearsome reputation he enjoyed before going to WWE.

Final Rating: ****


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.