Every time a wrestler is signed to WWE, some fans worry about that wrestler’s future. Time and again we’ve heard that WWE’s style and touring schedule require wrestlers to tone things down and stop doing what they did elsewhere.
This leads to this reputation that some wrestlers are simply better off outside ‘the E’ and that they can showcase more of their talents in other companies.
To see if this is the case, I’ve found yet another five wrestling matches involving current and former WWE wrestlers in Japan. Since Japanese promotions emphasize in-ring skill way more than gimmicks and angles, the logic is that those wrestlers will have better matches in Japan.
But is that really the case? Let’s take a look at these five matches and find out.
5. Brock Lesnar vs. Kurt Angle – IGF Toukon – June 29th, 2007
Background: This is a bit of a complicated story, but it’s important to explain how this strange match came about. Lesnar left WWE in 2004 and went to wrestle in Japan in 2005. A few months into his Japan tour, he won New Japan’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Shinsuke Nakamura. Not long after, then-owner of NJPW Antonio Inoki was forced out of his own company when YUKES bought his majority share. In response, Inoki founded a new company called Inoke Genome Federation (IGF) and recognized Lesnar as its first IGF Champion. When Inoki made that announcement, Lesnar had been stripped of New Japan’s world title (ostensibly due to visa issues) but Lesnar still held the physical belt, and no man alive could physically take that title away from Lesnar if he didn’t want to relinquish it. So Lesnar held the physical NJPW world title belt and used it to represent the first IGF world title. Furthermore, Kurt Angle got a shot at Lesnar (probably because he was the only person Brock actually respected), leading to a match between Lesnar and TNA’s first-ever TNA World Champion.
The match: Angle rushes Lesnar into a corner as the bell rings. Lesnar holds onto the ropes but Angle manages to pull him away and land a German suplex. Angle chases Lesnar out of the ring and lands some stiff uppercuts. Back in the ring, Lesnar lands a sudden kneelift to stop Angle’s advance. He sends Angle into the ropes and they do the immovable object shoulder tackle spot. Angle charges again but Lesnar counters with a sick overhead belly-to-belly suplex. He chokes Angle with his foot and lands some shoulder thrusts in the corner. Lesnar gloats but Angle fires back with punches. He runs to the ropes but Lesnar catches him in the F-5 position. Angle holds onto the ropes so Lesnar dumps him to the floor. Lesnar throws him back in and lands a snap suplex. He mocks Angle some more until Angle starts firing up with punches and uppercuts. But Angle’s comeback is short-lived as Lesnar reverses a corner whip and lands another belly-to-belly that sends Angle careening across the ring. Angle kicks out of a pin so Lesnar applies a front chancery and Angle starts fading. This goes on for a bit until Angle wakes up and counters with an overhead suplex.
They go back to trading strikes until Lesnar goes for a powerbomb. He gets Angle up but Angle counters into an ankle lock. Lesnar escapes by kicking Angle off. Angle answers with some shoulder tackles and two more Germans. Angle goes for an Angle Slam. Lesnar escapes and attempts and F-5. Angle counters into a DDT. Both men go down. Lesnar kicks out of a pin so Angle goes back to the ankle lock. Lesnar rolls forward and sends Angle into the turnbuckles. Lesnar follows that with his own German suplex and Angle lands hard. Angle barely kicks out at 2.5. Lesnar lands more shoulder thrusts and whips Angle into the opposite corner. He charges but Angle dodges and hits the Angle Slam but only gets two. Ankle lock one more. Lesnar rolls through into a pin for two. Then Lesnar ducks a clothesline and connects with the F-5/Verdict. One, two, NO, Angle kicks out at 2.9. Lesnar locks in his own ankle lock. Angle applies his own with his ankle still trapped in Lesnar’s arms. Lesnar loses his grip and Angle grapevines his leg. Lesnar taps out! Angle wins the IGF World Championship after 10:36!
Winner: Kurt Angle
Review: Solid match but disappointing as well, especially compared to their WWE matches. Even though it featured great wrestling and an exciting finish, there was still something ‘off’ here. Lesnar came across as barely motivated and seemed to do the bare minimum in the ring while Angle did what he could but still wrestled very well. There was a lot of boring forearm clubs and plodding strike exchanges that didn’t get much of a response from the crowd. Things only got truly exciting when Lesnar went for the powerbomb and Angle countered. From there is became an altogether different match with lots of great counters and exciting near-falls. Still, it’s very clear their WWE matches together were much better than this.
4. Jushin Thunder Liger vs. PAC – NJPW Best of the Super Juniors 2012
Background: Liger was a fixture of NJPW’s junior heavyweight tournament and appeared in almost every single tournament ever. In the 2012 edition of the BOSJ, he took on a pre-WWE PAC, who was making waves on the independent scene for his incredible diving skills and blistering speed. But could he match Liger in both those regards?
The match: They shake hands and the match begins with Liger taking PAC down by his arm. Some quick chain grappling ensues and Liger scores an early advantage. PAC tries to escape an armlock with a rope-assisted flip but Liger tackles him down. A cruiserweight exchange ensues and PAC lands a dropkick. PAC lands a running corner uppercut followed by a snap suplex that gets him a one-count. he applies a Figure-4 neck lock but Liger counters into a surfboard/Romero stretch, and then into the dragon sleeper variant. Liger continues targeting PAC’s back with different submission holds, including a pretty nasty-looking camel clutch. PAC resists getting thrown into a corner, so Liger chops him, only to be met with a big spinkick to the gut. PAC gets sent into a corner but then flips over Liger on a charge and then backflips across the ring. he dodges another charge and hits Liger with a springboard dropkick. Suicide dive to the floor by PAC.
Back in the ring, PAC lands a springboard crossbody and pins for two. They trade waistlocks and PAC ducks one shotei palm thrust but not another. Snap powerbomb by Liger and he goes to the top rope. Diving body press…connects…with PAC’s knees. PAC follows with an enzuigiri and a shooting star splash for another two-count. PAC goes to the top rope. Liger cuts him off and attempts a superplex. PAC counters with a diving sunset flip powerbomb. He follows up with a springboard 450 splash. Liger dodges and lands a Ligerbomb. One, two, PAC kicks out.
Liger goes for a Brainbuster. PAC lands behind him and waistlocks him. Liger fights out and reverses an Irish whip. PAC hits first with a flying forearm. Snap German suplex by PAC. He follows with his Red Arrow corkscrew shooting star press. PAC gets the pin and the win after 10:20!
Review: Great for a ten-minute match. Everything was smooth and fluid, the transitions were solid, and the pacing was great. It wasn’t a full blistering sprint and the moments of high-speed action were carefully balanced with some matwork that gave Liger the advantage. Liger did a great job selling for PAC but PAC didn’t do as good of a job for Liger. Even though it’s the junior style and to them it’s all about speed and lightning-quick transitions, it made no sense for PAC to do random backflips after getting his back worked over so deeply and for so long by Liger. It rendered that work obsolete in the end, which hurt the overall match. Still, PAC and Liger managed to pack a lot into ten minutes without anything feeling like overkill.
3. NWA World Heavyweight Championship: Masahiro Chono [c] vs. Steve Austin – NJPW Battle Autumn ’92 – September 23rd, 1992
Background: NJPW and NWA/WCW had a working relationship for many years. At one point, Chono won the NWA World title, a.k.a. the original world title, the one held by the likes of Thesz, Flair, Race, Steamboat, etc. Chono won it when he won the 1992 G1 Climax tournament after WCW stripped Flair of the title when he went to WWE. Here, Chono defended against “Stunning” Steve Austin. Also, this match is ironic for a very important reason, which we’ll get to later.
The match: They lock-up and Chono tackles Austin to the mat. Austin ducks down, catches Chono on a leapfrog and drapes him neck-first on the toprope. Chono blocks a back body drop with a kick, boots him in the face, and locks in an STF, but Austin escapes almost immediately. Austin goes to the floor to recover but Chono doesn’t relent as he lands a shoulder tackle from the apron. Chono tries suplexing Austin on the ringside mats but Austin lands on his feet and hits some dropkicks and a clothesline from the apron. Austin tries to suplex Chono over the rope and into the ring but Chono lands on his feet and they have a tense standoff, leading to applause.
Chono takes Austin to the mat with a headlock takeover and Austin tries to roll into some pins but only gets two one-counts. He escapes Chono’s headlock with a Backdrop suplex that gets two and applies a font chancery but Chono wrestles out into a facelock. Austin sends Chono into the ropes but Chono tackles him again and then applies his own grounded headlock on Chono. Chono gets his own two-count and then rolls into a neckscissor hold and maintains control over Austin’s head through Austin’s attempts at counters. Chono lands a Russian leg sweep for two and then starts the strength battle spot with Austin. Austin overpowers Chono and hits a clothesline for two and then lands a gutwrench suplex that also gets two. Chono takes Austin down by his leg and locks in a toehold but Austin rolls him over for another pin that ends with a two-count. Chono goes back to that same hold and then locks in a cross-legged hold but Austin crawls to the ropes, forcing a break.
They lock-up again and Austin starts hitting kicks to Chono’s head and gut. He lands a double rib breaker for a one-count and then they do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock. Austin goes low by kicking Chono and sends him to the floor. He slams Chono on the ringside mats and then suplexes him over the rope into the ring for another two-count. Auystin lifts Chono onto his shoulder in the Canadian backbreaker position but Chono flips over into a pin for a one-count. Austin bridges out and attempts a backslide. Chono counters into his own and gets a two-count. Austin drop toeholds him and locks in a Boston Crab. Chono reaches the ropes so Austin knees and stomps on his back and stomach. Chono blocks a corner charge and locks in a sleeper with bodyscissors. Austin breaks free and grabs Chono’s leg. Chono counters with an enzuigiri. He starts his comeback with some brawling and lands a big boot, followed by a falling neckbreaker that gets a two-count. Chono goes for a Tombstone. No, wait, Austin counters…into a sitout Tombstone. He drops Chono straight down (and breaks his neck in the process)!
Chono crawls away holding both arms to see if he has feeling in them but Austin doesn’t know how badly Chono’s hurt. He goes to pick Chono up but Chono counters with a drop toehold into an STF. Austin reaches the ropes. Chono takes him down again and reapplies the STF in the middle of the ring. Chono cranks the hold. Austin gives up. Chono retains after 17:08!
STILL NWA World Heavyweight Champion: Masahiro Chono
Review: Solid technical wrestling match, at least until the end. Everything up until the Tombstone was great, with plenty of back-and-forth action and tense technical grappling. It was weird seeing Steve Austin doing more chain grappling since most of us remember him for his brawling stuff in WWE. He and Chono had some great chemistry here and they were building things up nicely towards the finish. Then the Tombstone happened. As I mentioned earlier, this match was ironic because Austin basically broke Chono’s neck with that sitout Tombstone. Five years later, the very same thing would happen to Austin when Owen Hart did the same move to him at SummerSlam ’97. Once that move was hit, the ending felt a bit rushed and it seemed like they had to improvise a sudden finish. It was amazing that Chono was able to still do some basic grappling and lock in his STF without looking like he was seriously hurt. All that aside, this is a pretty interesting novelty match, especially for those that haven’t seen how a pre-WWE Austin wrestled.
Final Rating: ***1/2
2. IWGP Heavyweight Championship Interpromotional match: Vader [c] vs. Stan Hansen [AJPW] – February 10th, 1990
Background: Yes, this is THAT Vader/Hansen match. The one in which Vader’s eye fell out of its socket. How badly did Hansen have to hit Vader for that to happen? Let’s take a look.
The match: This is for Vader’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Hansen is representing All Japan in this cross-promotional show. The two wrestlers brawl before the bell rings. They stiff each other back and forth until Vader gets Hansen into a corner. The ref makes Vader back off but Hansen pushes forward and the haymakers keep flying. Vader catches Hansen’s arm and hits a short-range clothesline but Hansen barely moves. Hansen absorbs it like it’s nothing and they keep hitting each other super hard. The video is clipped, so we jump ahead to Vader taking Hansen down with a Fujiwara armbar. Vader suddenly lets go because something’s bothering him. It turns out the video is clipped (on New Japan World) because the initial blow that dislodges Vader’s eye isn’t shown. Vader removes his mask and we get a nasty close-up shot of Vader using his eyelid to keep his right eye in place. Christ, what an awful injury. Hansen rushes Vader because he’s Hansen but Vader fights him off and lands a corner body block. Hansen fights out and smashes Vader face (and therefore eye)-first into the turnbuckle. Hansen just did not give a f**k.
Hansen applies a chinlock but Vader fights back with stiff strikes. He whips Hansen into a corner but Hansen sidesteps and lands a Backdrop suplex. Vader follows up with another body block but Hansen pushes back with a head-butt. Hansen kicks Vader to the floor and smashes his face into the steel ringpost. He sends Vader into the ring barricade but Vader bounces back with a clothesline. Vader follows by draping Hansen onto the barricade and then hits a body block so big it sends Hansen into the crowd.
Back in the ring, Vader lands stiff body blows and Hansen sells like he can’t breathe. The ref asks Hansen if he can continue, but Hansen doesn’t say anything, so he keeps the match going. Vader kicks Hansen to the floor and then hits more punches. Back in the ring, a scoop slam gets Vader a two-count. Vader goes to the top rope and lands a diving body block that gets another two-count. Hansen drives his forearms and elbows into Hansen’s side but Hansen still kicks out of pin attempts. Hansen brawls to his feet. Vader sends him into the ropes. Hansen ducks and everyone thinks he’s going for his signature Western lariat. But Vader hits his own lariat first. Hansen tumbles to the floor. Vader hits Hansen some more and places him against the ringpost. He charges…but Hansen dodges. Vader body blocks the post.
Hansen tosses Vader into the ring but can’t pin because of the damage to his ribs. Hansen starts kicking Vader as hard as possible with the toe of his boot, and even targets Vader’s bad eye, which forces Vader back to ringside. Hansen tackles Vader so hard he sends Vader over the barricade. More stiff strikes from Hansen. Vader answers with the same. Hansen rolls Vader into the ring and pins but Vader gets his footo n the ropes. Hansen follows with kneedrops to Vader’s face. Another pin and another two-count. Big back elbow from Hansen. Vader kicks out again. Hansen teases the lariat and sends Vader into the ropes. Vader reverses an Irish whip and lands a dropkick. Yes, a dropkick. Both men fight to their feet and swing like savages. Hansen lands a lariat. Vader doesn’t go down. Both men brawl out to the floor and up the entrance ramp. The referee counts both of them out. The match is a double count-out after 15:47, but Vader is still champion.
STILL IWGP Heavyweight Champion due to a double count-out: Vader
Review: Probably one of the most violent matches ever that didn’t involve blood or weapons. This was as close to a real fight as it got in pro-wrestling not including real shoot fights or MMA. It was an ugly, hardnosed brawl between two behemoths that just wanted to rip each other apart. There was nothing graceful or really ‘athletic’ in the traditional sense; instead, Vader and Hansen just beat the piss out of each other by hitting as hard as possible. Even without the eye injury, this match came across as real and serious with how both wrestlers hit each other and how they sold for each other. It looked like both men were out to hurt each other, and honestly they probably did. Vader and Hansen were two of the stiffest wrestlers to ever live and they likely pulled no punches against each other. They helped remind viewers that pro-wrestling is very much a combat sport and treated this as a fight with a tiny handful of wrestling moves sprinkled here and there. The only deflating part was the ending, which absolutely sucked. It’s clear the double count-out was due to backstage politics, but it would’ve been much better if, for example, they brutalized each other so hard that neither man could get up at the count of ten. That would’ve done more to sell the toughness and danger of the match instead of a silly and disappointing count-out that benefitted no one.
1. Jushin Thunder Liger vs. Owen Hart – NJPW Top of the Super Juniors 1991
Background: the tournament now known as the Best of the Super Juniors (BOSJ) was known as Top of the Super Juniors during its early years. And just like today, that tournament attracted respected grapplers and agile high-flyers from around the world. In 1991, Owen Hart was one such a prospect looking to improve his reputation by wrestling in athleticism-heavy New Japan. And his opponent in this match was Jushin Liger, who was rapidly reaching his prime as one of the top smaller wrestlers in the world.
The match: Some excellent chain grappling starts things off. Owen powers out of a Greco-Roman knuckle lock and does some cool lucha springboarding stuff into a hip toss. He lands several dropkicks and headscissors that send Liger to the floor. Owen follows with a plancha to the floor and then whips Liger into the steel barricade. In the ring, Owen lands a snap suplex for a one-count and then applies a chinlock, but Liger powers out and lands some kneelifts. He drags Owen to the apron and suplexes him over the rope to the floor, and then returns the favor by whipping Owen into the barricade and then dropkicking him. Owen returns to the ring and Liger starts working over his left leg. Liger applies a modified Figure-4 and then switches to a different hold, but Owen counters into a pin that gets a one-count. Owen tries locking in a cross armbreaker but Liger keeps his hands clasped together as he reaches the ropes with his foot. Owen starts targeting Liger’s left arm with stomps and an arm-trapping scoop slam. Liger escapes a crossface chickenwing so Owen takes him to the mat with a hammerlock. A double-arm suplex gets Owen a two-count and he continues working the arm until Liger gets him in a corner. Owen punches out and lands a falling armbreaker. He locks in a deep Fujiwara armbar but Liger reaches the ropes so Owen drops a knee onto Liger’s arm. Owen sends Liger into the ropes and goes for a back body drop but Liger counters with a backslide that gets two.
Owen gets up first (because Liger’s arm damage is slowing him down) and lands an arm-trapping suplex for another two-count. He works the arm over some more and goes for a suplex but Liger counters into an armbar of his own. This time Owen crawls to the ropes, so Liger strikes back with a Romero stretch into a surfboard chinlock. Liger continues attacking Owen’s limbs with various double-arm-and leg holds. He rolls Owen over into a pin and kicking out puts immense pressure on one of Owen’s shoulders. Owen manages to escape and then flips over Liger on a back body drop attempt, only for Liger to hit back with a rolling koppu kick. Liger clotheslines Owen to the floor and climbs the turnbuckle. Diving splash to the floor.
Back in the ring, Liger and Owen crisscross each other until Owen lands an overhead belly-to-belly for a very close two-count. bridging German suplex by Owen. Liger kicks out and counters a clothesline with a crucifix pin. Owen kicks out and rushes Liger into a corner. Liger counters a corner whip, sees Owen crossbody out, and dropkicks him in midair. Owen ducks a running wheel kick but gets dumped to the floor. Liger goes to attack but Owen smashes him into the turnbuckle. Top-rope crossbody press by Owen. Liger uses Owen’s momentum to flip the pin onto him. One, two, no, Owen barely kicks out. Liger goes for a Tombstone Piledriver. Owen counters into his own and goes to the top rope. Diving head-butt connects. Liger still kicks out. Owen slams Liger and lands a diving moonsault, but Liger kicks out again. Owen goes back to the top rope. Liger cuts him off and lands an electric chair suplex from the second rope and pins for two. Liger goes for a superplex but Owen head-butts out. Liger fires back with a dropkick and a top-rope DDT. Liger crawls over and gets the three-count after fifteen minutes.
Winner: Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger
Review: Great match with lots of solid technical wrestling, but most of it was inconsequential. Both wrestlers – but mostly Owen – showed some strong psychology during the first half with some limb targeting and chain grappling. With those strategies at play, the logical conclusion would’ve been for both wrestlers slow down towards the end to try and overcome the odds. Instead, that smart wrestling fell by the wayside in favor of a fast-paced spotfest towards the end. And yet, this match was better than most of today’s matches because any move could’ve conceivably ended the match. Everything during the last five minutes was done perfectly and the wrestlers really got the crowd behind them. It’s just too bad it took such a long time to reach that point and they rendered everything from the first 2/3 of the match irrelevant.
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