One of the cool things about seeing American wrestlers in Japan is you get to see a lot of unexpected stuff. Because of the different wrestling style, someone that might’ve been seen as a bad wrestler stateside (in WWE or another company) might show the complete opposite across the Pacific. That’s the stereotype, anyway, but is it always true? Let’s find out.
Once again I’ve found five matches involving former and current WWE wrestlers in Japan. Some of these matches are very obscure and you might not have even known that these matches ever took place. So with that, let’s dive in.
5. Keiji Mutoh and The Steiners vs. Masahiro Chono & The Outsiders – NJPW Strong Style Evolution 1997
Background: Through WCW’s working relationship with New Japan, Scott Hall & Kevin Nash were able to get booked in a big-money match for a NJPW PPV. Here they teamed with Masahiro Chono, who was basically the NWO’s representative in Japan and helped create the NWO Japan splinter group. Mutoh was originally allied with Chono but they disagreed on who should lead the stable. There seemed to be a gradual turn for Mutoh coming, but in the meantime here he teamed with the Steiners to take on the Outsiders and Chono.
The match: Mutoh and Chono start things off with some basic wrestling. Chono wins a Greco-Roman knuckle lock test of strength and sends Mutoh into the ropes but Mutoh rolls under and hits a dropkick. Chono answers with a big boot and throws Mutoh onto the elevated entrance ramp, where he drops him with a snap suplex. Mutoh suddenly jumps up and hits a spinkick and a bulldog. Then he runs up the entrance ramp and connects with a clothesline on Chono. Chono returns and kicks Rick on re-entry into the ring, and then both Scott (Steiner) and Hall tag in. Hall flicks his toothpick in Scott’s face so Scott kicks him and goes for a hiptoss. Hall blocks and lands a falling chokeslam and then locks in an abdominal stretch. Chono gets in to stop Rick from saving his brother and then kicks Rick in the face behind the referee’s back. Hall goes for another abdominal stretch but Scott counters into a pumphandle drop. Scott follows with two Manhattan drops and an overhead-belly-to-belly suplex, and then tags Rick. Rick runs wild with a belly-to-belly of his own for a two-count and then lands a clothesline and pins but Chono breaks it up. Rick goes for a second-rope dive but Hall catches him and lands a fallaway slam. Rick reverses an Irish whip and drops Hall with a powerslam. Chono comes in but he gets clotheslined. And then Nash tries a boot but he too gets powerslammed. The Steiners and Mutoh all enter the ring to pose for the fans as the NWO guys recuperate at ringside.
Hall kicks Rick and applies an armlock, and then tags Nash. Nash hits corner knees and back elbows, followed by a rope choke and a running press into the ropes. Nash follows with snake eyes and tags Chono, who lands a kick right to Rick’s ribs. Rick gets a sudden burst of speed and powers Chono into his corner and tags Mutoh. Mutoh lands a snampare/flashing elbow combination and sends Chono into the ropes but Chono counters a back body drop with a kick and then lands a low blow behind the ref’s back. Hall tags in and starts stomping but Mutoh counters with a dragon screw leg whip. Scott tags in and locks in a front chancery but Hall manages to get into his own corner and tags Nash. Nash keeps the other side at bay while Nash and Chono double stomp Scott. Hall lands a big corner running knee and then a foot choke. Nash backs off allowing Hall to clothesline Scott from the apron.
Hall tags in now and hits a discus punch and tags Chono. Scott sends Chono into the ropes and Chono bounces off of him on a shoulder block. Scott runs the ropes but runs into a big boot. But that doesn’t faze Scott and he lands an underhook powerbomb. Scott places Chono on the top rope but Hall cuts him off allowing Chono to drop an elbow. He tags Hall and they double-clothesline Scott. After some stomping, Nash tags in and hits a sidewalk slam but Rick breaks up his pin. Chono tags in and locks in an STF but Rick breaks that up too so he and Hall to the leg split. Hall slaps Scott until Scott starts powering up. He and Hall trade punches and then double clothesline each other. Hot tag to Rick who comes in like a house on fire. He hits some clotheslines, a slam and an elbow for a two-count. The Steiners hit their doomsday bulldog finisher. Nash boots Rick but Scott clotheslines Nash to the floor. Chono goes for a yakuza kick but Rick counters with a German suplex. Mutoh goes after Chono but Nash manages to stop Rick from diving onto Hall in the ring. That allows Hall to drop Rick with the Razor’s/Outsider’s Edge. One, two, Mutoh breaks up the pin. Chono boots Rick. Mutoh kicks Chono back out. Mutoh dragon screws Chono as Nash hits a Jackknife on Rick. Hall crawls over to pin Rick and gets the win for his team.
Winners after 14:31: Chono & The Outsiders
Review: Bland match. I was hoping for something special here but this was decidedly average. If you’ve seen one Outsiders six-man tag match you don’t need to see this one. Chono and the Outsiders did a solid job of isolating Scott and being underhanded heels, but that’s about it. The Steiners shined a bit as well but for the most part both of them were picked apart at different times. Mutoh and Chono had some light exchanges but there was a marked lack of intensity in their interactions. Plus the crowd was completely dead and didn’t cheer at all except for Rick for his power moves and his barking. Everything just came across as disjointed and haphazard, but at least the right team won since the NWO needed more heat to justify their coming to Japan and Chono needed another reason to get Mutoh to join him.
Final Rating: **1/4
4. AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship Match: Toshiaki Kawada [c] vs. Mick Foley – HUSTLE-3, May 8th, 2004
Background: From September 2003 to February 2005, Toshiaki Kawada enjoyed a lengthy and successful reign as AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. He broke a major record at the time by defending it successfully ten times during a single reign, increasing the Triple Crown’s prestige and value in the process. But one of his defenses was not like the others. One of them took place not in All Japan, but in HUSTLE. HUSTLE was a more entertainment and comedy-oriented company in the spirit of WWE. I don’t know what’s more impressive: that HUSTLE managed to convince Kawada to defend his sacred title on one of their shows, or that they got Mick Foley to agree to compete for it.
The video below includes a pre-match hype sequence showing further background. Foley explains that his waist feels naked and that he vows to take Kawada’s prestigious title. And at the press conference/contract signing, Foley pulls out a barbed wire baseball bat and vows to ‘gift’ it to Kawada many times. Kawada answers by saying he doesn’t know/remember Foley and this angers Foley something fierce. Foley takes the barbed wire bat and smashes a table with it, before using it on one of the rookie attendees trying to keep things in order. Kawada is nonplussed at all this and maintains his composure in the face of this wild man in front of him. in other words, this a more recent retelling of the classic ‘outsider monster vs. cool-headed native hero’ trope central to puroresu.
Author’s Note: I was curious how this match came about so I tried asking the man himself. I met Foley in Kingston, Ontario several years ago when he was doing his comedy tour. Before he started his routine, he was taking pictures and giving out autographed Mr. Socko’s. As I was getting mine I asked him about this match with Kawada. Since there was a long line and he was on a tight schedule, all he could say to me about it was, “I arrived and left that show in a wheelchair.” I guess that’s a harbinger of what’s to come.
The match: Foley enters first and cuts a promo putting Kawada over to anyone that might not know who he is. He vows to beat Kawada traditional-style and decides not to use the bat.
Kawada hits first with kicks and elbows to the back of the neck. Foley tries hitting back and takes Kawada’s arm but Kawada stiffs him with another elbow. Foley powers out of a waistlock and takes Kawada’s arm again but Kawada escapes and hits more elbows. Foley fires back in kind and they brawl back-and-forth until Kawada lands a hook kick. Foley lands some strikes and goes for a cactus clothesline but Kawada ducks and dumps him onto the entrance ramp. A running high kick sends Foley to the floor and a series of chest kicks sends him over a guardrail. Frustrated, Foley grabs the barbed wire bat after all and throws chairs into the ring. Foley hits a rookie with the bat but the ref pulls it away, which allows Kawada to land a corner kick. Kawada lands more stiff strikes but Foley hits back with a jab and a stump puller piledriver for a two-count. Foley boots Kawada to the floor and hits a swinging neckbreaker on the ringside mats. Foley follows with a Cactus Elbow to the floor.
Back in the ring, Foley gets a one-count off a suplex. The two wrestlers brawl some more until Foley unloads right punches in a corner and hits a running knee. Foley applies a sleeper hold with bodyscissors but Kawada gets a ropebreak so Foley hits a double-arm DDT for two. Foley grabs the bat and tries to grind it into Kawada’s face but Kawada resists while the ref’s distracted by Foley’s ally TAKA Michinoku. Kawada blocks completely and hits a Dangerous Backdrop Driver. He follows with three running kicks to Foley’s face. Foley drops the bat and eats a gamengiri to the side of the head. Kawada takes the bat and throws it far away but Foley takes advantage and hits him from behind. Foley pins following another clothesline but Kawada kciks out. Foley pulls out Mr. Sock but Kawada hits first with his patented Kawada stepkicks. Kawada follows with a corner yakuza kick and a lariat. one, two, Foley kicks out. Stretch Plum submission hold. Foley kicks out. Knee drop to Foley’s head. Foley kicks out. Kawada charges for a lariat but someone trips him from ringside. Foley locks in the Socko/Mandible Claw. Kawada fights out and hits more stiff shots and hits a Misawa-style one-two elbow smash combo. A second gamengiri connects. One, two, Foley kicks out. Kawada drills him with a running kick to the side of the head. One, two, and three! Kawada retains!
Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Champion after 12:56: Toshiaki Kawada
Review: They tried but this wasn’t that great. Foley had no chance of winning and struggled to convince viewers otherwise. He spent most of the first half of the match on defense eating kicks and wasted lots of time with stalling and teasing. Foley got a bit closer to winning after the piledriver and the Claw were used, but that still left him far from beating Kawada. Kawada was also a bit limited in what he did here given that he couldn’t rely on his more vicious throws and powerbombs. So he relied on stiff strikes and easier submissions. Kawada is usually an amazing wrestler, but he’s also one that requires an opponent willing to take riskier bumps for him. And Foley, wisely, didn’t do any of that. It hurt the match, but at least he didn’t hurt his already war-torn body any further.
Final Rating: **3/4
3. Keiji Muto* vs. Jamal – AJPW Champion Carnival 2004, April 15th, 2004
*Different places and companies spell his name differently, but it’s still the same mist-spraying, dropkicking cross wizard of professional wrestling.
Background: Jamal is Eddie Fatu, a.k.a. Umaga. This match took place between his two WWE runs. After being let go the first time, Fatu found work All Japan, likely thanks to Johnny Ace’s connections with the company. Here, he took on company owner Keiji Muto in AJPW’s annual round-robin Champion Carnival tournament. He was also closer to his Three-Minute Warning gimmick and talked like an ordinary wrestler.
The match: Muto waistlocks Jamal and switches to a leglock. Jamal gets a ropebreak and talks trash to Muto and the ref. Jamal powers out of a full nelson but Muto takes his arm. Jamal hits back and Muto goes back to the leg but Jamal escapes with some stiff forearms. Jamal works Muto’s arm to the mat but Muto escapes via judo throw, leading to a standoff.
They do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock and Jamal easily overpowers Muto and blocks a double-wrist suplex. Jamal hits a swinging sidewalks slam but hurts his own arm in the process. Maybe it’s from Muto’s earlier armwork or maybe it’s a legit injury, it’s hard to tell from Jamal’s selling. Muto sees an opportunity and dropkicks that same arm. Jamal refuses to end the match so Muto applies a kimura until Jamal gets a ropebreak with his foot. Jamal fights back with one arm and uses his size advantage to land a corner stinger splash followed by a running hip attack. He refuses to let the ref stop the match as he pins for a two-count. Jamal goes for a one-armed Samoan drop but Muto rolls into another kimura and then into a cross armbreaker. Jamal clasps his hands together and then rolls to the ropes to break the hold. Muto dropkicks Jamal to the floor and hits a plancha. A man with knees like sawdust just hit a plancha to the floor. Muto is so badass.
Jamal reverses an Irish whip into the steel barricade and charges but Muto sidesteps so Jamal hits the barricade bad shoulder-first. Back in the ring, Muto goes for a diving dropkick but loses his balance so Jamal splashes on top of him but can’t pin because of his arm. Jamal hits a Vaderbomb press but only get a two-count. He tries a powerbomb but can’t lift because of his arm. He tries again and finds the strength to lift Muto up but Muto counters with a Frankensteiner into another cross armbreaker. Jamal gets a ropebreak and then interrupts a Muto charge with a thrust kick. He follows with a head-butt (because, Samoan) and goes for another Vaderbomb. But this time Muto dodges. Shining Wizard! That’s followed by a second one. one, two, thr – no, Jamal kicks out. Muto goes to the top rope. Moonsault! One, two, and, no, Jamal kicks out again. Muto tries yet another cross armbreaker. Jamal gets yet another ropebreak. Muto tries yet another Shinnig Wizard. Jamal blocks it. Muto tries again. Jamal counters with a spinebuster. Jamal signals the end and hits a Cross Rhodes. One, two, Muto kicks out. Samoan drop. Muto kicks out again. Superfly Splash. Jamal dives halfway across the ring. one, two, and…three! THREE! Jamal pins Keiji Muto!
Winner after 16:56: Jamal/Eddie Fatu/Umaga
Review: It started off slow but it got much better towards the end. Jamal had a clear size and power advantage so Muto tried to take that away from him early on and it worked. Once Jamal’s arm started giving him problems it changed the match in two ways. First it gave Muto more opportunities and avenues to victory. And second, it slowed Jamal down and made it harder for him to hit his own big moves while making him look tough for fighting through the pain. It equalized the match and made it more competitive and believable, especially given Muto’s limitations against such a larger opponent. Jamal sold consistently throughout the match and incorporated it into as many moves and segments as possible. He withstood pretty much everything Muto put him through and managed to pin Muto clean after hitting him with every big move he had. By no means is this some kind of classic, but for a random singles match it was more than solid.
Final Rating: ***1/4
2. IWGP 3rd Belt Championship match: Kurt Angle [c] vs. Yuji Nagata – NJPW Wrestling Kingdom II (2008)
Background: Okay, this this title exists due to a messy situation that requires explanation, so here goes. In late 2005, Antonio Inoki was booted out of NJPW when video game company Yuke’s bought out his majority ownership share. At the time, Brock Lesnar was the reigning and defending IWGP Heavyweight Champion. In mid-2006, NJPW stripped Lesnar of the title because he was unable to make a scheduled title defense. But Lesnar still held the physical championship belt and refused to relinquish it. And nobody was going to physically takeit away from Lesnar if he didn’t want to give it up (I don’t think there’s a man alive that would or could carry out that unenviable task). Then in 2007, Inoki founded a new promotion, Inoki Genome Federation (IGF) and recognized Lesnar as his new company’s world champion. Thus the belt Lesnar physically possessed, which was the second design of NJPW’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship, was rechristened as the IGF version of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, a.k.a. the 3rd Belt Championship, while NJPW had a tournament to crown a new IWGP Heavyweight Champion, using the belt design that existed up until the unification in 2021. Lesnar lost the 3rd Belt to Kurt Angle in one of IGF’s first shows, and how Angle defends that belt against NJPW mainstay Yuji Nagata.
The match: Angle rushes Nagata as the bell rings and attacks him in a corner. Nagata fights out but Angle counters him into a belly-to-belly suplex. Nagata fights out of a German suplex and lands an overhead belly-to-belly of his own. Angle escapes to ringside to avoid a nasty kick and when he returns he gets into a long chain-grappling sequence that ends with Nagata shoulder blocking Angle to the mat. Angle avoids a kick but eats a drop toehold. Nagata goes for a crossface but Angle gets to the ropes. They trade holds again until Nagata hits some leg kicks. Angle reverses an Irish whip. Nagata ducks a clothesline and Angle ducks an enzuigiri. Angle hits another belly-to-belly for a one-count. Nagata counters an Irish whip and hits a back elbow and then applies a chinlock. He sends Angle into the ropes again but Angle counters with a double-leg takedown. Angle chases him and attacks his leg at ringside, and then applies a leglock back inside the ring. Angle applies a heel hook but Nagata kicks his way to freedom. Angle responds with a Figure-4 leglock but Nagata pulls one foot back to present the hold from being applied fully. Great logic there. Nagata nearly reverses the hold onto Angle but Angle rolls back and locks it in fully. Great strategy by Angle since Nagata won’t be able to kick at full-strength with weakened legs. Nagata tries reversing and escaping but eventually toughs it out by pulling himself (and Angle) to the ropes for a ropebreak.
Angle goes back to that leg but Nagata kicks with his free leg. Nagata twists into a Nagata Lock II/Dis-Arm-Her. Suddenly, the video cuts out for commercial and we return to find Angle hitting his rolling German suplexes. We get a replay of the action during the break that showed Angel getting a ropebreak and Nagata kicking Angle’s now-weakened arm, which was followed by Nagata missing a corner kick and Angle hitting the first German. Back in the moment, Nagata avoids an Angle Slam and lands an Exploder suplex for a close two-count. Nagata hits a vertical suplex followed by a Brainbuster. He goes for a third suplex but Angle blocks and applies the ankle lock. Wait, no, Nagata rolls into another crossface. Angle fights through and gets the ankle lock applied. Nagata reverses back into the crossface. Angle’s right arm goes limp. The ref checks on him but he starts fighting back. Angle reverses back into the ankle lock but Nagata kicks him off. Angle charges but gets caught in yet another crosssface. Angle rolls over and lands an Angle Slam. Awesome counter. One, two, Nagata kicks out.
Angle goes to the top rope. Diving moonsault…misses. Nagata gets up and hits a corner Justice Knee. That’s followed by an avalanche belly-to-belly. One, two, Angle kicks out at 2.9. Another crossface by Nagata. Angle tries slipping out but Nagata reapplies it. how is Angle surviving this given his many neck issues? Angle lifts his hand to tap. Nagata uses that to lock in his ultra-deadly Nagata Lock III/Rings of Saturn. He rolls into a pin. One, two, Angle kicks out. Nagata goes for a Backdrop suplex. Angle counters into an ankle lock but Nagata kicks him back. Strong style strike exchange. Both wrestlers go down. Release Backdrop suplex by Nagata. Angle kicks out. Nagata winds up for a kick. Angle catches his leg. Ankle lock! Angle sits down and then grapevines Nagata’s leg. Nagata taps. Angle retains his title!
Winner and STILL IWGP 3rd Belt Champion after 18:29 (including commercial): Kurt Angle
Review: That was an excellent technical match. It was one of the best matches Angle has had in years. He only wrestled Nagata once and had a match that he himself admitted was one of his best performances.
This was something like a mini dream match with two technical marvels clashing in a big singles match. They did some awesome chain grappling. Both wrestlers attacked a limb to try and weaken the other. They countered each other nonstop. Anytime a submission hold was locked in it was believable as a potential match-ender. The chemistry between them was apparent from the beginning. Everything was so seamless and smooth without any wasted motion. The selling wasn’t 100% flawless (Nagata went for a kick despite it being weakened from Angle’s earlier legwork), but he still looked valiant for surviving Angle’s ankle lock for so long. Nevertheless, these two had a great match that showcased why they were so respected for their in-ring skill.
Final Rating: ****1/4
1. Atsushi Onita vs. Terry Funk – No-Rope Exploding Barbed Wire Time Bomb Deathmatch – FMW 4th Anniversary Show – May 5th, 1993
Background: Terry Funk is quite possibly the king of both classic wrestling and hardcore garbage wrestling. He is the master at wrestling as storytelling and gets so much out of so little. Here, Funk decides to take on the king of Japanese deathmatch wrestling, Atsushi Onita. But this isn’t just any old deathmatch. The ring ropes are replaces with barbed wire and will send an electric shock if they are touched. As if that wasn’t enough, there is a timer that will go off after a certain amount of time. Once that timer goes off, BOOM! So if you’re wondering where AEW got their inspiration from, this is it.
The match: The referee is covered head-to-toe in protective equipment to underscore how dangerous this environment is. They lock-up and start trying to push each other into the barbed wire ropes. The crowd’s already getting excited as Onita starts tensing up as he gets closer and closer. Onita pushes back and the crowd rallies behind him. But Funk pushes back and hits an elbow and some other strikes. Funk hits some jabs and Onita flies backwards into the ropes. A tiny explosion goes off and Onita gets shocked. The crowd’s still behind Onita as Funk lands more punches. He tries to send Onita into another set of ropes but Onita resists so Funk lands a piledriver instead and gets a two-count. Funk follows with a swinging neckbreaker and a kneedrop that get another two-count. Irish whip. Onita goes into another set of barbed wire ropes! He gets shocked a second time. The crowd still chants Onita’s name so Funk yells at him to get up. He punches Onita some more but this time Onita goes to block with a headlock. But Funk turns that into a knee crusher. Funk tries to drag Onita by his hair to a third set of ropes. He gets closer and closer, to the point that Onita has to turn his head sideways. But Onita counters with a backdrop suplex. He gets a momentary reprieve before Funk head-butts him back down.
They both fight to their feet and Funk tries to throws Onita again but this time Onita counters. Funk gets thrown into the third set of ropes. Funk staggers around the ring and then eats a DDT but kicks out at two. Onita suffers another knee crusher, which gives Funk a moment to recover. Both men get up and Onita resorts to head-butts. Funk staggers ever closer to the last set of unexploded ropes with each head-butt. Onita winds up for a big one but Funk sidesteps. Onita hits the last set of ropes and falls to the floor.
Onita returns to the ring bloody and lacerated as Funk swings at him wildly. Suddenly a timer appears on screen showing the five minutes remaining before the ring explodes. The ringside photographers move to safety as Funk brawls like a wild man with Onita, swinging blindly. Onita lands a big punch and pins but only gets two. Both men are bloody now as Funk lands head-butts of his own. Both men stagger around and collide with each other and then fall to the canvas.
Four minutes left.
Funk drops Onita and locks in his patented spinning toe hold. But Onita kicks him with his free leg. Funk goes crashing back into a set of ropes and gets shocked again.
Three minutes left.
Onita hits a convulsing Funk with a DDT and pins. One, two, three! Onita gets the win!
Winner after 12:14: Atsushi Onita
But there’s still over three minutes left on the timer. The match is over but Funk decides to choke Onita with his wrist tape. The bell rings frantically and Funk wallops the referee as well. Onita whacks Funk in the head with some foreign object and then hits another DDT.
Two minutes left.
Onita still isn’t done as he hits Funk with two powerbombs. The referee is begging Onita to leave the ring but Onita shoves him away.
One minute left.
The warning bell is now accompanied by a siren that completely drowns out the commentary.
Thirty seconds left.
Onita makes it out of the ring.
Ten seconds left.
Then he realizes that Funk is still in the ring. He slaps Funk to wake him up. But Funk doesn’t move an inch. So Onita covers Funk to protect him. The timer runs out!
Several pillars of fire and smoke billow up into the air. There is a moment of complete silence before music starts playing. Onita lifts Funk up and the two pat each other in mutual respect. The two men wave to the crowd, covered in blood, sweat, and soot. Onita cuts a brief post-match promo and then leaves with Funk, only to collapse just as they reach the backstage area.
Review: That was far and away one of the most unique matches I’ve ever seen. It was way better than the AEW rip-off and not just because it had a bigger boom at the end. This was a straight up brawl with very dire consequences while also being a fantastic spectacle. Everything Funk and Onita did was so simple yet each move carried so much weight to it. The only actual ‘wrestling moves’ here were some DDTs, piledrivers, some knee breakers, a toehold, a DDT and some powerbombs. Everything else was simple and realistic shoving and brawling. They made the stipulation the centerpiece of their respective strategies, which led to both wrestlers quickly losing composure and swinging for the fences. It was tense. It built up quickly and organically. It had this sense of desperation. They made every single move count. Even something as basic as locking up, getting the strength advantage, and pushing, had a major impact on the match. And even though the stipulation was as over-the-top as it gets, it wasn’t overdone, silly, or too extreme. It was serious and came across as an entertaining fight with unique parameters. Plus the ending was awesome. Onita had won but in the moment he switched his satisfaction for concern for his brother-in-arms and went to save Funk from the incoming explosion. It was a great story element to add onto the bloodbath that had just taken place. I wouldn’t call it some historic epic, but it’s definitely one of the best deathmatch style contests out there.
Final Rating: ****1/2