Is in-ring pro-wrestling better in Japan than it is in North America? That’s a question that I’ve been trying to answer with this match reviews series. Many of the highest-rated matches in history have taken place in Japan, which has led some people to believe that matches are better by default in promotions in that country.
However, I have also seen examples of the opposite, where matches are no better or worse than what’s showcased here.
To explore this question further (and to dig up some rarely-seen matches involving your favorite wrestlers), I’ve found five more matches involving some of the most famous North American wrestlers competing in Japan. Let’s see how well they did.
5. TNA World Heavyweight Championship Match: Jeff Hardy [c] vs. Tetsuya Naito – NJPW Wrestle Kingdom V
Background: TNA had a working relationship with NJPW that lasted for many years. That relationship saw wrestlers from both sides compete on each other’s shows. For the most part, this meant that Japanese wrestlers like Jushin Liger, Tanahashi, Nakamura, and others would wrestle on TNA programming. On the flip side, it also meant that TNA wrestlers would compete on New Japan’s bigger shows to help elevate TNA’s international exposure. That’s how we got Jeff Hardy defending his TNA World Heavyweight Championship against Tetsuya Naito. Now, this is 2010 Naito; he was still very much a bland midcarder without much in the way of personality. Still, he hoped to send a message to people watching by taking on arguably the biggest star TNA had at the time.
The match: They trade waistlocks until Naito takes Hardy’s arm. Hardy counters Naito’s armlock and then does some quick chain grappling. Hardy is already sluggish and is mistiming some spots. Naito lands a dropkick and a running senton for a two-count and then goes to the top rope but Hardy cuts him off. it looks like Hardy might’ve torn his groin, but still he soldiers on and lands a superplex and does a little dance before pinning for two. Naito fights out of a chinlock and lands a sunset flip pin for two. Hardy hits back with a clothesline and follows with a leg clutch for his own two-count. He tosses Naito to the floor and lands a senton from the apron. He pins Naito in the ring for a two-count and applies an underhook lock. Naito gets a ropebreak and then dodges a corner charge. He hits a falling neckbreaker and a springboard dropkick, which get him another two-count.
Hardy elbows out of a German suplex attempt and Naito counters a corner whip. Naito catches Hardy’s feet on a kick and lands a rope-hung neckbreaker, followed by a super Frankensteiner for another two-count. Naito slams Hardy and goes to the top rope. Stardust press…misses. Hardy goes to capitalize with a Twist of Fate. Naito counters with a backslide but that gets two, as does a cradle. Hardy kicks Naito but eats a flying forearm for his efforts. Naito powers up and charges a corner. Hardy blocks and hits the Whisper in the Wind. One, two, Naito kicks out. Hardy follows with a Twist of Fate and a Swanton Bomb and pins to win the match.
Winner and STILL TNA World Heavyweight Champion after 11:04: Jeff Hardy
Review: Oh my God, that was bad. Poor Naito. He was trying so damn hard to make something out of this but something was clearly wrong with Hardy. Within a minute he was already gassed and moving sluggishly. He was clearly working hurt, but at the same time there was like no effort here. Hardy did close to nothing for most of the match, which forced Naito to carry more than his fair share. Naito bumped around, did all the heavy lifting, and went the extra mile to get the crowd to give a damn about this match. They cheered here and there, but it was obvious that they were just being polite. Worse, Naito was on offense for the most part and Hardy beat him with relative ease. Naito was made to look like a chump by a guy that wasn’t even wrestling at 50%, much less 100%. This is easily one of the worst matches in Jeff Hardy’s career, though it’s still not his absolute worst.
Final Rating: *1/2
4. Goldberg vs. Satoshi Kojima – AJPW, August 30th, 2002
Background: After his WCW contract expired, Goldberg started getting offers from all over the place. But before he signed with WWE, he agreed to work a few shows for All Japan. At the time, AJPW was run by Keiji Mutoh, who wanted a big international star to face off against some of the rising native stars. But Mutoh himself didn’t face Goldberg; instead, that honor went to Satoshi Kojima. At the time, Kojima was the biggest singles star to follow Mutoh and defect from New Japan. And in 2002, Kojima was widely considered the Bret Hart of All Japan. He was putting on marvelous matches left and right, and was groomed as a future top star in the company, which was critical since All Japan’s main-event was still a bit clouded by older wrestlers approaching the end of their respective primes.
The match: The crowd is incredibly loud as they cheer for both wrestlers. Goldberg throws Kojima down each time they lock-up as the crowd applause loudly. Kojima hits some forearms but Goldberg no-sells and drops him with one punch. Kojima recovers at ringside and returns, at which point they lock-up and Goldberg rolls into his kneebar. The crowd’s going bananas as Goldberg keeps Kojima on the mat and Kojima writhes in pain. Kojima fights his way to the ropes and then tries to counter an irish whip. Goldberg blocks that with a kick and hits a pumphandle front slam. Goldberg hits some knees but Kojima counters a corner whip and hits a running forearm. Goldberg does down but counces right up. Kojima powers up and turns around but walks into a thrust kick. Goldberg follows with a Jackhammer for the pin and the win.
Winner after 4:02: Goldberg
Review: This was exactly what one would expect from the words ‘Goldberg’ and ‘Japan’. It was still a squash match that was right up Goldberg’s alley, but there was more of an emphasis on the matwork and the ‘real’ submission hold than there was when he was in WCW. All the same, Goldberg did what he did best here which was manhandle a much smaller guy without breaking a sweat. My only issue here is that it didn’t make sense for Kojima of all people to be sacrificed to Goldberg here. AJPW could’ve offered up literally anyone else but they chose to feed their top rising star at the time to him. I guess they wanted to test him against an international guy maybe? It didn’t make sense creatively or from a long-term business standpoint, but damn if Goldberg didn’t look as great here as he always did. I just wish Kojima got a bit more offense in. Not only would it have made him look a bit more valiant, but it also would’ve made Goldberg look even better for ‘overcoming’ more than just a handful of strikes.
Final Rating: **
3. The Great Muta vs. Bob Sapp – AJPW Wrestle-1, November 17th, 2002
Background: Words can’t do justice in explaining just how popular Bob Sapp was in Japan in 2002-2003. He had appeal as both a celebrity and as a legit fighter thanks to his work in PRIDE Fighting Championships and in New Japan. He was unbelievably over. He had this incredible magnetism about him that allowed him to be a completely wacky character outside the ring; but once he entered the ring he transformed into a ruthless killer. That contrast was on full display here. Sapp entered the arena wearing a massive feather boa and danced to Holiday alongside his back-up dancers. And the audience clapped and cheered along like it was some kind of huge concert. The cheerfulness and camp of Sapp’s entrance was contrasted with Muta’s as Muta appeared in the ring suddenly under eerie red light and thick columns of smoke.
The Match: Muta spits red mist in the air and makes a beeline for Sapp. Muta follows with his first dropkick to the knee (DTK). That’s followed by a second one and a dragon screw leg whip. A third DTK connects and Muta tries another dragon screw. Sapp counters with a one-shoulder powerbomb and an elbow drop. Then he sends Muta into a corner and hits the slowest corner clothesline I’ve ever seen. And yet the crowd is going nuts. They haven’t quieted down at all since the bell rang. Sapp lands some shoulder thrusts and forearm clubs. He starts choking Muta in the corner with his foot until the referee steps in. He gets between Sapp and Muta and pushes Sapp backwards. Sapp powers him down to his knees and Muta senses an opportunity. Muta hits a Shining Wizard using the ref as a stepping stool. Awesome move! Muta hits a clothesline and both men go to the floor.
Back in the ring, Muta lands a snampare/flashing elbow combo and then attempts a short arm scissor. Sapp powers through (because he’s a freaking mammoth) and lands a sort of deadlift slam. Sapp winds up and football tackles Muta to the floor. But he’s not done. Sapp hits a plancha onto Muta. That’s a 330-pound man flying like a cruiserweight.
Muta rolls into the ring and eats some clotheslines, Sapp lifts Muta up for a powerbomb, but Muta has an amazing counter: the green mist. He spits the mist in Sapp’s eyes while sitting on Sapp’s shoulders. The crowd goes insane. Shining Wizard #2. Sapp gets to one knee and dares Muta to try that again. Which Muta does. Shining Wizard #3. He pins. Sapp kicks out at one. Muta lands a rib breaker and goes to the top rope. Snap moonsault connects. One, two, Sapp kicks out.
Muta goes for a fourth Shining Wizard but Sapp counters with a tree slam. He lands a running shotgun dropkick that sends Muta bouncing off the ropes and back to the middle of the ring. Then Sapp goes to the top rope. Diving head-butt. Sapp pins and gets the three-count to beat Muta.
Winner after 6:33: Bob Sapp
Post-match, Sapp celebrates with a little dance routine. He’s got a huge smile on his face and completely ignores the green mist that Muta spat at him. Muta leaves the ring and then gives Sapp a parting gift. He spits his mist to the floor, which causes some small explosions to go off down towards the ring. Sapp is left in a ring filled with smoke as Muta’s banners surround the ring.
Review: That was without a doubt one of the most entertaining things in pro-wrestling that involved someone with so little wrestling ability. Sapp was below average in the ring, but the few things he could do he did well enough. Since he was so limited, he basically let Muta do most of the work. And even though Muta was just as limited as Sapp (albeit for different reasons), Muta was able to do some very fun and exciting stuff. He hit maybe six or seven different moves total all match, and once again built the match around hitting his Shining Wizard. He was really creative with his match structure, especially when he used the referee as a stepstool and when he blinded Sapp with mist while in the powerbomb position to set up his second and third Shining Wizards. The problem, though, was that Sapp wasn’t selling very well, if at all, so a lot of the stuff Muta did had no impact on the match. Sapp hit a handful of power moves and a few crazy dives, but those few things were enough to keep Muta down. It wasn’t the most competitive match by any means, but it had a ridiculously wild crowd that loved everything Muta did and adored everything Sapp did. All in all, a fun little throwaway match.
Final Rating: ***
2. Kota Ibushi vs. Cody – NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 12
Background: A few months earlier, Cody confronted Ibushi and offered him a shot at the ROH World title that Cody held at the time. That title challenge never came to be as Cody lost the title a month later at an ROH show. Nevertheless, New Japan were determined to go ahead with this ‘special singles match’ between two top singles stars at the time. Also, this took place before Ibushi reunited with Kenny Omega, so this was very much a standalone match without much else in terms of larger story significance.
The match: Cody poses with Brandi at ringside before locking up with Ibushi. Cody tackles Ibushi to the floor but Ibushi kips up right way. That’s followed by a high-speed dodging and ducking sequence that ends with Cody flipping Ibushi off. They trade waistlocks until Cody takes Ibushi’s leg. Cody counters a hiptoss with a hiptoss of his own and locks in a modified figure-4 leglock that’s quickly broken up due to a ropebreak. Cody offers a hand and helps Ibushi to his feet and then cheap-shots him with a kick and a Goldust-style throat thrust. Cody charges but Ibushi lands a snap Frankensteiner that sends Cody to the floor. Ibushi flies over the top rope with a pescado but he hits both Cody and Brandi. Ibushi is horrified and checks on Brandi. He picks her up out of concern but Cody punches him in the face. he tosses Ibushi into the ring and checks on Brandi, who laughs with him over their clever ruse.
In the ring, Cody lands a disaster kick but gets two two-counts. Cody follows with elbows to Ibushi’s neck and collar and pins once more but gets two again. He locks in a double-arm neck crank but Ibushi gets a ropebreak. Cody drapes Ibushi over the apron and rains forearms across his neck as Brandi steals a chair. Brandi distracts the referee as Cody uses the chair on Ibushi. Cody goes to swing it one more time but Ibushi avoids it and lands a baseball slide dropkick. Ibushi starts powering up and the crowd’s fully behind him. Golden triangle moonsault to the floor.
Ibushi tosses Cody into the ring and hits a springboard dropkick. He follows with his martial arts rush/roundhouse kick/moonsault splash combo but that also gets only two. Both guys try to suplex each other over the rope until Brandi gets involved by grabbing Ibushi’s boot. She doesn’t get disqualified and that momentary distraction allows Cody to drape Ibushi’s neck across the top rope. Both wrestlers end up on the apron. Ibushi teases a piledriver but Cody blocks it. Cody kicks his gut and grabs his head. Cross Rhodes from the apron to the floor. The referee starts counting. Ibushi barely makes it into the ring at the count of 19.75.
Cody stomps over towards Ibushi and tries to pull him to his feet but Ibushi sinks down. Why Cody doesn’t pin right then and there is a mystery. Cody carries Ibushi to a corner, places him on the top rope, and gloats to the audience. Why isn’t this guy trying to win? Ibushi’s basically a warm body that can’t defend himself. Even Don Callis is warning him not to give Ibushi time. Cody decides to take a page out of Ibushi’s playbook and hit a springboard hurricanrana. Guess that’s why he was stalling. Cody pins. One, two, – no, Ibushi kicks out.
Ibushi tries to use the ropes to lift himself up but Cody kicks the second rope into Ibushi’s throat. Cody goes for Cross Rhodes again. Ibushi counters and hits a lawn dart. Cody flies head-first into a corner. Ibushi gets critical seconds to recover. He and Cody start trading forearms until Ibushi gets the advantage with rapid-fire slaps and palm strikes. Last Ride Powerbomb. Cody kicks out. Ibushi goes for the Kamigoye double-wristlock knee strike. Cody dodges and hits a lariat that gets a two-count. Cody talks more trash and goes for another disaster kick. Ibushi dodges and lands a roundhouse to Cody’s neck. Kamig – no, Cody head-butts Ibushi first and goes for a short-range lariat. Ibushi ducks and hits an armtrap bridging German suplex for another two-count. Kamigoye knee strike connects. But Ibushi isn’t done. He goes to the top rope. Phoenix Splash connects. One, two, three! Ibushi wins!
Winner after 15:08: Kota Ibushi
Review: This was a very good match that was offset by a bit of inconsistency on Cody’s part. His over-the-top heel antics were great at first, especially with how he used Brandi to get an advantage over Ibushi. But then he seemed to veer a bit too far into silly territory with all sort of overt gloating. He chewed the scenery too much instead of focusing on winning, which was something that the commentators pointed out. On the flipside, the overall wrestling was solid with both wrestlers hitting lots of interesting moves and delivering some great near-falls. Cody’s apron Cross Rhodes was fantastic and his early attempts at dismantling Ibushi’s neck were all great. But as is the case with Ibushi, his selling was a bit inconsistent in some places and nonexistent in others. He felt no ill effect within minutes of taking multiple chairshots to the head and seemed basically fine not long after getting back into the ring off said apron Cross Rhodes. Both guys were very creative, though at the same time they shoehorned a bit too much into such a short and inconsequential match. For Ibushi, this was more of the same he had done before, so there wasn’t much novel out of him. Cody and Brandi were the more interesting act, though even their work didn’t have much of a lasting impact here.
Final Rating: ***3/4
1. Kenta Kobashi vs ‘The Gladiator’ Mike Awesome – AJPW, September 4th, 1999
Background: Mike Awesome, a.k.a. The Gladiator, had a stint in Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW), which was the company that inspired ECW’s hardcore turn in the early 1990s. FMW entered into a working relationship with All Japan Pro-Wrestling later in the decade, which allowed FMW guys to compete against AJPW guys. In this case, Awesome took on the legendary Kenta Kobashi, who was arguably the best wrestler on the planet at the time in terms of in-ring skill.
The match: They lock up and Awesome powers Kobashi into a corner. Awesome tries to start a strike war with Kobashi and soon finds himself eating vicious chops to the chest and neck. They do multiple ‘immovable object’ spots and neither man goes down. Awesome no-sells another chop and football tackles Kobashi as he charges. Awesome follows with a running splash for a one-count and a lariat. He throws Kobashi ringside but Kobashi counters an Irish whip into the barricade. Kobashi throws Awesome into the barricade two more times, which gets loud applause. Kobashi and Awesome try to suplex each other over the top rope but Awesome blocks and hits a springboard shoulder block as Kobashi charges at him. He follows with a leg drop that gets two and goes for a vertical suplex but Kobashi counters with one of his own. Awesome kicks out at one and yells at Kobashi “come on you mother f**ker”, so Kobashi chops his chest into oblivion.
Kobashi follows with a corner jumping knee and a basement shoulder tackle that lead to a two-count and then locks in a double-arm stretch. Awesome spends a few minutes trying to fight out, and when Kobashi sees him gaining strength he quickly counters into a side headlock. Kobashi tries his best to keep it locked in but Awesome escapes and lands a powerslam for two. Awesome dropkicks Kobashi to the floor and then tackles him as he tries to get back into the ring. Awesome follows up with an Undertaker-style suicide dive to the floor. Awesome tries to powerbomb Kobashi on the ringside mats but Kobashi powers out. But he can’t do so a second time as Awesome hits a massive sitout powerbomb and returns to the ring. The ref keeps checking on Kobashi as Awesome waits in the ring impatiently. Awesome gives up on waiting and attacks Kobashi, who has barely moved in over a minute. The ref tries to stop Awesome but Awesome just throws him aside, rolls Kobashi into the ring, and lands a slingshot splash that gets a 2.6-count.
Kobashi resists another powerbomb so Awesome locks in a camel clutch. Awesome throws Kobashi back out of the ring and drives him back-first back-and-forth into the barricade and the side of the ring. Awesome tosses Kobashi back into the ring and hits a top-rope clothesline for two. He locks in another camel clutch and then hits forearms to Kobashi’s kidneys. Awesome sends Kobashi into a corner and charges but Kobashi sidesteps and hits a Backdrop suplex. Kobashi follows with his kneelift/Russian leg sweep combo that gets a two-count. He hits some neck chops and goes for a German suplex but Awesome blocks and hits his own German. Awesome lands an Alabama Slam and goes to the top rope. He follows with a top-rope splash and pins. One, two, Kobashi kicks out.
Awesome teases the Awesome Bomb. Kobashi hits first with a chop. Awesome ducks a rolling chop and kicks Kobashi’s gut. Awesome Bomb connects. One, two, Kobashi survives. Awesome tries again. Kobashi escapes and lands a German. Both guys get up slowly. Kobashi ducks a clothesline and hits a bridging dragon suplex for another two-count. He slams Awesome and goes to the top rope. Diving moonsault connects. One, two, Awesome kicks out. Kobashi charges for a lariat. Awesome hits first with a kneelift and then counters with a spear. Awesome follows with a corner body block and lifts Kobashi up. One-shoulder Razor’s Edge. One, two, and th – no, Kobashi kicks out. Awesome teases a top-rope superbomb. Kobashi blocks and attempts a superplex. Awesome blocks that and tries the superbomb again. Kobashi resists so Awesome changes direction and tries a normal powerbomb. Kobashi counters with a Frankensteiner. Running LARIATO! One, two, three! Kobashi wins!
Winner after 19:09: Kenta Kobashi
Review: Kenta Kobashi is the walking definition of an overachiever in pro-wrestling. Even on a random show with no major stakes or story, he put 110% into his matches. At the same time, Awesome more than lived up to his name here as well as he went to war with Kobashi. He out-powered Kobashi whenever he could and played the heel very well by constantly charging at and hitting Kobashi to maintain control and momentum. He did his best to destroy Kobashi’s back to both eliminate Kobashi’s power game and to soften him up for his finisher. But Kobashi proved to be too much. He withstood the biggest bombs Awesome through at him and came up with the right amount of counters needed to survive. Kobashi attacked Awesome’s neck for most of the match with everything from simple headlocks to stiff chops to high-angle suplexes. That psychology allowed Kobashi to win at the end with a perfectly-timed lariat that nearly took Awesome’s head off. This is why I review these matches: there’s always a nice surprise where you least expect it. Awesome and Kobashi, two heavyweight hosses that hit hard and bounced around like lightweights, fought like Gladiators (pun intended) and puts on a thrilling match despite basically no high stakes being involved. Really a hidden gem filled with solid wrestling that’s punctuated by a wild crowd that loves every minute of it.
Final Rating: ****