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 version 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 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.
Also, some of these matches are incredibly obscure (Undertaker wrestling in Michinoku Pro Wrestling) while others are a bit more well-known (Hogan vs. Muta). I’ve included video footage for some of them, but for others, you’ll have to subscribe to New Japan World to see.
5. Toru Yano vs. MVP – Tournament final to determine the inaugural IWGP Intercontinental Champion, May 15th, 2011
Background: In late 2010, New Japan started a working relationship with Jersey All Pro Wrestling (JAPW), one of the predominant indy feds in the Northeast US. As part of this partnership, NJPW created the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, with the first champion being decided over a three-day eight-man tournament. Toru Yano, an NJPW mainstay and whose gimmick is that of a cheap troll, beat both Dan Maff and Yujiro Takahashi to advance to the finals. Meanwhile, MVP defeated a then-white meat babyface Tetsuya Naito and a pre-Rainmaker Kazuchika Okada to advance to that same finals match. So, yes, MVP holds victories over both TETSUYA NAITO and KAZUCHIKA OKADA. And submission victories at that. Wrestling’s full of strange happenings.
The match: Yano cuts a pre-match promo, but the audio’s so bad it’s hard to tell if he’s speaking Japanese or English. MVP attacks Yano as soon as the bell rings. Yano spends the first minute of the match walking around ringside and avoiding MVP as best he can. But Yano taunts MVP one time too many as MVP catches him in the ring and clobbers him with forearms and a discus clothesline. Yano escapes to ringside yet again, so MVP boots him over the guardrail. In the ring, MVP gets a two-count and clobbers away at Yano some more. Yano counters an Irish whip and charges MVP into a corner but MVP elbows him instead. MVP goes for a second-rope dive but Yano pulls him off by the leg. Yano pulls off his wrist tape, shoves the referee aside (New Japan refs aren’t made of glass and don’t call for the bell right away), and proceeds to choke MVP with it against the ropes as the crowd boos. Yano goes for a pin but the ref doesn’t count because MVP has his hand under the rope.
Yano chokes MVP with the tape some more until the ref makes him stop. Meanwhile, the crowd, though small, is really laying into Yano. Yano rakes MVP’s eyes and does other cheap tricks but MVP starts firing up. MVP lands a big kick, dodges a corner charge, and connects with a clothesline. He follows with a belly-to-belly, a Triple H-style facebuster, his Ballin’ elbow, and a perfect-plex, all of which gets him a two-count. MVP goes for a German suplex but Yano holds onto the ropes. MVP continues to try but Yano grabs the referee’s belt, for some reason. But the ref’s not having it and slaps Yano, which allows MVP to connect with triple German suplexes. MVP signals the end and goes to the top rope. He connects with a diving head-butt. One, two, Yano kicks out.
MVP goes for another German but Yano grabs the ref and uses this distraction to land a low blow. Yano cradles MVP but MVP kicks out. Yano lands a powerbomb, but MVP kicks out of that as well. MVP reverses a corner whip and sends Yano into it instead. MVP charges but Yano pulls the ref into himself so that MVP hits both of them. The ref goes down, allowing Yano to grab a foreign object and whack MVP in the head with it. Yano pins, but MVP kicks out again. Yano tries again. MVP ducks and uses that same weapon against Yano. Then he lands his Playmaker finisher and then transitions into a Koji Clutch. Yano taps out almost instantly. MVP becomes the first-ever IWGP Intercontinental Champion after 9:27!
Analysis: **3/4 About as good of a match as you’re going to get out of Toru Yano. He’s not really meant to be taken seriously, even though it was clear MVP was deadly serious for this match. They worked hard and had solid chemistry together. Yano worked his gimmick perfectly by acting as the devious cheater. But he wasn’t really trying to be funny as he usually does; there was a hint of malice in his words and actions, which actually helped make this match a bit better. It was fine for what it was, though I wish MVP had a better opponent in the finals of this tournament to crowd a new champion.
4. The Undertaker vs. Hakushi – Michinoku Pro Wrestling Dioxine from Sasuke – October 10th, 1997
Background: WWE tried to create their own cruiserweight division to counter WCW’s bourgeoning light heavyweight division in 1997 by bringing in Japanese stars like TAKA Michinoku and The Great Sasuke. As a return favor, I guess, MPW requested that a WWE superstar come perform for them. But instead of asking for a typical technical workhorse like Shawn Michaels or one of the Harts, they asked for the Undertaker. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; the Undertaker was a spectacular wrestler all over the world, even in Japan.
As further background, ‘Taker’s opponent in this match is Hakushi. After his WWE run, Hakushi returned to Japan and entered a feud with The Great Muta. At some point, Muta and Shinzaki had a brutal match that ended with Muta ‘killing’ Hakushi. To sell that story, for Hakushi’s entrance, a bunch of hooded figures come out carrying a casket as ominous music plays. They bring it into the ring and toss a body out of it. Then the Undertaker makes his entrance and gets arguably the quietest reaction I have ever seen. He doesn’t get even the slightest hint of applause until he actually gets into the ring. I guess the gong and the funereal dirge don’t get the same Pavlovian response in Japan as they do here in North America. The lights come up and Undertaker gives his coat to a normal-looking Brother Love. Across the ring, a body lies facedown, unmoving. Slowly, that body begins to stir. It’s Hakushi, who is wearing the same tattered and bloodstained gear from his earlier match with Muta. So it looks like it’s going to be a zombie vs. zombie match.
The match: Hakushi turns around and immediately eats a huge chokeslam from ‘Taker. ‘Taker follows this with some punches and a clothesline for a two-count. He lands his Old School ropewalk clothesline that also gets two and then whips Hakushi so hard into the corner he falls out of the ring. ‘Taker throws Hakushi onto the apron and then suplexes him over the apron into the ring. He pins but Hakushi gets his foot on the ropes.
Undertaker sends Hakushi into the ropes but he ducks a clothesline and lands a knife-edge chop. ‘Taker lands a big boot but then misses an elbow drop, but soon recovers and sends Hakushi into a corner. Hakushi kicks ‘Taker in the face lands a Frankensteiner for a one-count. He lands some head-butts in the corner but ‘Taker pushes him off. ‘Taker goes for another chokeslam but Hakushi flips over and lands on his feet. Awesome counter. Then he follows with a modified dragon screw leg whip. Hakushi continues attacking ‘Taker’s legs with head-butts to both knees. ‘Taker struggles to stay on his feet as Hakushi places him in the tree of woe but then escapes and fires back with different strikes. ‘Taker sends Hakushi into the ropes but Hakushi ducks a boot and kicks ‘Taker’s legs again and lands a top-rope falling head-butt to the knee. ‘Taker escapes to ringside but Hakushi gives chase with a dive. Big mistake. ‘Taker catches Hakushi in mid-air and drivers him spine-first into the steel ringpost.
Hakushi returns to the ring at the count of fifteen but Undertaker goes after him right away. Hakushi counters an Irish whip but Undertaker ducks a clothesline and hits his patented flying clothesline instead for two. ‘Taker tries to capitalize but Hakushi goes back to the knee. Undertaker tries to overpower him but Hakushi escapes a Tombstone attempt and delivers another dragon screw. Snap moonsault by Hakushi. Undertaker kicks out. Hakushi goes for a delayed top-rope falling head-butt. Undertaker escapes via the zombie sit-up and hits a huge chokeslam. Hakushi kicks out at 2.5. ‘Taker follows with the Tombstone Piledriver and pins for the three-count after about twelve minutes.
Post-match, the Japanese reports ask Undertaker for a comment and he responds with ‘they all Rest in Peace’. Meanwhile, the same hooded figures that brought (the corpse of) Hakushi into the ring bring back the same casket and use it to carry Hakushi out of the ring.
Analysis: *** That was one of the strangest matches I’ve ever seen but in a good way. Hakushi balanced being a plodding zombie with surprising agility and that combination worked well here. He sold Undertaker’s offense in the same sluggish way the Undertaker did and surprised ‘Taker with some unusual strategies. Hakushi’s best moments came when he flipped out of a chokeslam (I’m surprised no one in WWE has done that yet) and when he went after ‘Taker’s knees. But despite that creativity, there was never a moment when the Undertaker was in any real peril. There never came a moment when Hakushi came even close to winning. It would’ve been better if Hakushi had a few more close near-falls just to add to the drama and give even the slightest possibility of him winning. Maybe the Undertaker wanted an easy match after getting completely wrecked with just one move from Kane five days earlier.
3. GHC Heavyweight Championship Match: Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Samoa Joe – NOAH, October 27th, 2007
Background: Misawa’s Pro Wrestling NOAH promotion had formed working relationships with different promotions during their peak years in the early-to-mid-2000s. One of those companies was Ring of Honor, which hosted a legendary bout between Samoa Joe (who was contracted to ROH at that time) and NOAH legend Kenta Kobashi. Two years later, Joe got TNA’s blessing to work this match against NOAH founder Misawa for NOAH’s world title. This was a dream match for Joe, considering his wrestling style was heavily influenced by 1990s All Japan guys like Misawa and Kawada.
The match: They shake hands and the match is on. They trade clean breaks and on their third lock-up Joe starts working Misawa’s arm until Misawa gets to the ropes. Misawa applies a headlock and Joe whips him into the ropes and neither man goes down on a shoulder tackle spot. Misawa lands a hard elbow, then ducks a roundhouse kick and lands another elbow, bit Joe charges and boots him out of the ring. Joe charges, and lands an elbow suicida on Misawa. He just stole one of Misawa’s signature moves.
Back in the ring, Joe applies a figure-4 neck lock and keeps it in for a while. When Misawa fails to fight out, he pulls himself to the ropes to escape. Joe lands some hard corner strikes and then a running knee lift into another corner for a two-count. Joe hands some more head-butts and Misawa starts fighting back with elbows, but Joe drops him with an enzuigiri. He tosses Misawa into a corner and lands multiple facewashes for another two-count. Joe applies the stretch plum, a signature move of Misawa’s archrival Kawada, but strangely gets little reaction, even as Misawa kicks out at two. Misawa gets a second wind and drops Joe with some stiff elbows. Misawa answers an Irish whip counter with a back elbow to a charging Joe, but Joe hits him hard once again and lands a big kick to his chest for another two-count. a northern lights suplex gets Joe two once again. Misawa goes for an elbow but Joe ducks and goes for the STO. Misawa fights out of that and goes for a Tiger Driver but Joe fights out. Back and forth they go with strikes until Misawa lands another stiff elbow strike. Misawa applies his facelock but Joe reaches the ropes. Misawa applies it again and gets a two-count. Misawa charges but walks into a powerslam, yet still manages to kick out at two.
Joe floats over into an armbreaker but Misawa rolls to the ropes. Hoe maintains control with a five-move combination that ends in another two-count. Joe goes for a powerbomb but Misawa resists; so he, like Kawada did many times before him, stepkicks Misawa and then lands the folding powerbomb. But like before, Misawa still kicks out, so Joe transitions into an STF. And then into a crossface. Misawa inches his way to the ropes, forcing a ropebreak.
Joe goes to put Misawa on the top turnbuckle for the muscle buster but Misawa fights out. He fakes Joe out and rolls into a cross armbreaker of his own. Joe copies Misawa from earlier and reaches the ropes with his foot. Misawa lands some hard elbow strikes but Joe knocks him down with another enzuigiri. Muscle Buster connects. Misawa kicks out. Joe goes for the Island Driver but Misawa fights out. Joe answers with an Exploder suplex. Island Driver connects. Misawa kicks out at 2.9. Joe is stunned. The crowd finally wakes up.
Misawa gets another burst of energy and lands multiple stiff elbow smashes from both arms. That’s followed by a rolling elbow smash and both men go down. They get up at the same time. Misawa lands a running elbow, Joe kicks out. Emerald Flowsion from the top rope by Misawa. Joe kicks out at 2.9. Misawa puts Joe in a sitting position. And just wrecks him with an elbow smash to the back of his neck. One, two, three! Misawa retains the GHC Heavyweight Championship after 17:14.
Analysis: ***1/2 Solid but very disappointing. This was Samoa taking on MITSUHARU FREAKING MISAWA, basically the Ric Flair of Japan. On paper, it should’ve been tremendous. But it wasn’t, and that was for two reasons. First, Misawa was WAY past his prime. He shouldn’t have been wrestling at all in 2007, much less working stiff world title matches. He was beyond beat up and was riddled with injuries. But he soldiered on because NOAH needed him. That left him incredibly limited in what he could do, which made this match come across as inferior to what Misawa had done in the past. Second, the crowd just didn’t care about Joe at all. He worked hard but they barely reacted to him. I think a big reason for that was because Joe kept using other Japanese wrestlers’ moves, especially Kawada’s. I think the audience saw right through that and didn’t react because they had seen all that before. Had Joe been a bit more creative and wrestled in a more novel style, maybe the crowd reaction would’ve been different.
2. Hulk Hogan vs. The Great Muta – NJPW Wrestling Dontaku 1993
Background: This match took place under weird circumstances. Hulk Hogan was WWF/E Champion and still contracted to Vince’s company but he was on his way out. Yet he still held WWE’s world title (back when it carried a hell of a lot more prestige than it does today) going into this match, so it seemed pretty clear who was going to win. The only question was how much of a fight his opponent would put up.
The match: Muta spits his mist and flips Hogan off. They fake each other out for the first minute until they lock up, at which point Hogan wrestles into a cross armbreaker. Muta gets a clean break on the ropes then rolls out to the entrance ramp to bait Hogan but Hogan’s not buying it so Muta flips back into the ring. They lock up again and Hogan wrestles into a hammerlock and then into a drop toehold and then floats over into a front headlock. Yes, Hogan is actually wrestling like a technician. Following another clean break, they to the Greco-Roman knuckle lock and Hogan wrestles into a grounded armbar. Muta escapes by grabbing Hogan’s eyes and pushing him into a corner and lands some shoulder thrusts. Hogan escapes then uses his power to push Muta into another corner and lands some knee lifts. Hogan whips Muta and lands a big corner clothesline. He whips Muta again but Muta dodges and a pair of dropkicks that send Hogan out of the ring. Muta poses in the corner as Hogan recovers at ringside.
They lock up again and Muta rakes Hogan’s eyes, then lands his patented snapmare/flashing elbow combo for a two-count. Hogan fights out of an armlock with a drop toehold, tries a few different submission holds, and rolls Muta over for a one-count. Muta returns to the ring after a spell at ringside and lands some hard strikes that send Hogan out of the ring. They brawl and Hogan lands a suplex on the ringside mats. Hogan’s in control as he tosses Muta into the front row and then back suplexes him on the mats again. Muta rolls into the ring to break the ref’s count and rolls back out. Hogan chases Muta and goes to whip him, but Muta counters and Hogan runs into the steel ringpost shoulder-first. Twice. Muta grabs the ring bell hammer and whacks Hogan in the head with it. And yet it’s not a disqualification. Muta applies a chinlock in the ring and then throws him onto the elevated entrance ramp. Muta gets a running start and sprints way up the ramp. Then he turns around, and with a full head of steam clotheslines Hogan over the rope back into the ring.
Both guys look to be hurting after getting their arms tied up in the ropes. Hogan kicks a charging Muta then hammers him with punches to the forehead and rakes his eyes. Hogan started getting booed as he shoves the ref aside and starts fighting more like a villain. Enzuigiri by Hogan. Muta kicks out at two. Muta counters a corner whip and lands his handspring back elbow. Rib breaker by Muta. Snap Moonsault. Hogan kicks out at two. Muta kicks him out of the ring and tosses him into the fans. He finds a ladder used by the lighting crew and Tarzans his way over and knocks Hogan down hard. Muta isn’t done as he smashes Hogan with a steel chair. The ref argues with Muta as he tries to bring the chair into the ring. That allows Hogan to capitalize and land an Ax Bomber lariat. Hogan rips the chair from the ref’s hands and knocks him down. Muta spits the mist. Hogan goes down. Muta goes for a diving dropkick. Hogan sidesteps. Atomic leg drop of doom. One, two, NO, Muta kicks out. Wow, Muta actually manages to kick out of Hogan’s leg drop. Huge reaction from the crowd for that. Hogan whips Muta into the ropes and lands a big boot. That’s followed by another Ax Bomber lariat. One, two, three! Hogan wins after about sixteen minutes.
Analysis: ***1/2 Quite possibly Hogan’s best-ever match from an in-ring perspective. There’s something almost otherworldly in seeing Hulk Hogan doing drop toeholds, chain wrestling sequences, and working a limb. Most of us are used to seeing him due his bare minimum that made him a household name stateside in the 1980s and 1990s. But this was something different and it showed that Hogan was as skilled in the ring as he was business savvy. He knew his typical American shtick wouldn’t work in Japan so he showed that he, in fact, can wrestle like an actual wrestler when he wants to. But aside from the novelty of seeing Hogan demonstrate technical wrestling, the match itself was solid. Muta brought his A-game against Hogan and showed some strong athleticism against someone that was much bigger, both physically and in terms of star power. Hogan made Muta look like a big star by selling for him and letting Muta kick out of his leg drop of doom. It wasn’t a technical masterpiece by any means, but it showed that Hogan actually had a lot more wrestling talent than most people give him credit for.
1. IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship Match: Prince Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi vs. Low Ki – NJPW Wrestle Kingdom VII
Background: No story here, just three highly-skilled junior heavyweights looking to steal the show on New Japan’s biggest show of the year.
The match: For some reason, Low Ki is cosplaying as Agent 47 from the Hitman franchise. Yes, he’s actually wrestling in a full suit, complete with dress shoes, black gloves and barcode tattoo on the back of his head. Ki lands an early stiff stomach punch that downs Ibushi and then focuses on Devitt. They have a nice cruiserweight exchange that ends with Ki tacking Devitt but then Ibushi tackles Ki. Lots of ducks and quick reversals early on. Ki gets double-teamed and knocked out of the ring and then Devitt baseball slide dropkicks Ibushi out of it. Ki attacks Devitt from behind and sends Devitt into a corner. He charges for an attack but Ibushi cuts him off with a snap hurricanrana and then roundhouse kicks Devitt. Ibushi follows with a gorgeous triangle moonsault to Ki on the floor. Great start to the match.
In the ring, Ibushi downs Devitt with a martial arts rush and then applies a chinlock following a two-count. Devitt escapes and the two trade counters, chops and kicks until Ki pulls Devitt off the apron. Ki head-butts Ibushi and lands a Muta-style flashing elbow for his own two-count. Ibushi gets to his feet and fights back but Ki out-strikes him with stiff kicks. Devitt comes in to attack Ki but he ends up mule kicked in the face for his efforts. Ki applies an abdominal stretch and whips Devitt into the ropes but Devitt counters with a sunset flip. Ki tries to counter with his double foot stomp but Devitt dodges. Then out of nowhere, Ibushi springboards and lands a missile dropkick. Then Devitt dropkicks Ibushi and lands a suicide dive onto both of them.
After about a minute outside, Devitt tosses both men into the ring and sets them up in opposite corners. Despite Low Ki’s attempt at a counter, Devitt lands corner clotheslines and dropkicks on both and a diving leg drop onto Ibushi for a two-count. He lands an enzuigiri on Ki and goes for Bloody Sunday. Ki escapes but Devitt blocks him and goes for the inverted Bloody Sunday instead. Ki escapes that too and Ibushi charges in. Devitt blocks him and lands a Pélé kick but that allows Ki to land a huge rolling kick to Devitt’s face.
Devitt escapes to ringside as Ki remains in control in the ring. Ki goes for a fisherman buster but Ibushi reaches the ropes and tries a Half-Nelson suplex. Ki escapes so Ibushi dropkicks him out of the ring near Devitt. Ibushi follows with a springboard corkscrew moonsault to the floor. Great move. But he’s not done. He goes for a Last Ride powerbomb on Ki onto the entrance ramp. Ki escapes. Ibushi answers with a Pélé kick of his own. He’s in control as Devitt rolls back into the ring.
Ibushi goes for a moonsault but sees Devitt rolling away so he does the double jump moonsault and gets two. The two duck strikes until Ibushi lands a roundhouse kick followed by a bridging Half-Nelson suplex that also gets two. Ibushi follows with a successful Last Ride Powerbomb. Ki breaks up the pin and punches Ibushi into a corner. Ibushi counters a corner clothesline with a dragon suplex attempt. Ki blocks but eats a German suplex instead. But Ki lands on his feet and connects with a double stomp and pins. One, two, Ibushi kicks out. Ki Crusher. Low Ki lands his Fisherman buster finisher. One, two, no, Devitt breaks it up with a diving dropkick and then pink Ki, but he kicks out too.
Devitt goes for a superplex but Ki fights out and goes for the corner foot stomp. Ki gets to his feet, but before he can, Ibushi springboards and lands a hurricanrana. WOW, what an awesome move. Ibushi pins. Ki kicks out. Ibushi goes for a phoenix splash. Ki rolls out of the way and Devitt stomps Ibushi. Then Ki shotgun dropkicks Devitt for another two-count. He goes for a top-rope Fisherman buster. Ibushi flies in and kicks Ki out of the ring and goes for a top-rope suplex. But Devitt counters into diving Bloody Sunday for the pin. Devitt retains his IWGP Junior Heavyweight title after 14:45.
Analysis: **** This was a typical crazy junior heavyweight match with lots of insane high-spots and crazy counters. Three-way matches are rare in New Japan but these guys made it work thanks to some clever spots and creative counters that kept viewers guessing what would happen next. Ibushi was the star here with his incredibly daredevil acrobatics while Devitt played the devious heel champion and Ki was the (sharply-dressed) foil to both of them that focused on basic wrestling and martial arts. It was definitely a unique match, especially with Ki wrestling the entire match in a suit and never losing his shoes.
Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here on TJRWrestling.