Written by: Mike Campbell
FIGHTING SPIRIT 1995
February 3, 4, and 19, 1995
There’s only so much of the current NJPW scene that I can stand, so it’s time to jump into the wayback machine and see a time when good matches were the norm for NJPW.
Hiroyoshi Tenzan . . . makes his first challenge for the IWGP Title, years before he was established as the IWGP Choker.
Kanemoto and Ohtani . . . win their first respective singles titles
Scott Norton . . . actually sells, and does a decent job of it, at that.
EL SAMURAI/SHINJIRO OHTANI vs. KOJI KANEMOTO/GRAN HAMADA
This is quite the fun little sprint of a tag match, watching Kanemoto and Ohtani remind me of why Kanemoto used to be my favorite NJPW wrestler. Kanemoto can lay on a decent sized beating, but it’s really Ohtani who deserves the credit, because he’s selling and bumping like mad to make Kanemoto’s beating as brutally as possible. Samurai and Hamada both get to play the role of the grumpy veterans, and while it was fun watching Kanemoto smack Ohtani around like his personal slave for a day. Hamada is the one who really puts a focus on the match, as he starts to tear apart Ohtani’s arm.
Kanemoto doesn’t seem to take the hint though, as he goes back to being the cocky punk, and when he starts trying to bully the referee, is when Ohtani seizes the moment and tags. Samurai hits four big bombs in a row on Kanemoto, the Thunder Fire powerbomb, the brainbuster, a tombstone, and a big backdrop. A quick bit of mis communication leads to Ohtani dropkick Samurai and we get the obligatory brawl and dives to the floor. Kanemoto tries to roll Ohtani in and finish him off, but Samurai saves, and then Hamada save Kanemoto from Ohtani’s Dragon suplex. After a nice reversal sequence, Ohtani gets a flash roll up for the pin on Kanemoto. But the action doesn’t stop there, Kanemoto takes exception to getting pinned, and decides to take it out on Ohtani’s face. ***
MASAHIRO CHONO/HIRO SAITO vs. HIROYOSHI TENZAN/JUNJI HIRATA
Tenzan before the skunk mullet, and before facial hair looks almost exactly like Kensuke Sasaki did pre facial hair. For a young guy who had just returned to NJPW from a learning excursion, Tenzan looks and wrestles a far cry from someone who would become known as the IWGP Choker, here he looks like he’s the next big threat to Hashimoto. He handles both Chono and Saito with relative ease. Why does he even have Hirata with him? This may as well be a handicap match, because Hirata’s only use in this match is to get some heat, so Chono and Saito can be the dirty heels. As soon as Tenzan gets hot tagged back in, they have no prayer. Tenzan’s tombstone that he uses to finish off Saito is especially brutal, unlike the TTD we’ve all since become accustomed to. This is barely a poor wrestling match, but it’s not supposed to be. The idea is to build up Tenzan for his first IWGP Title shot, and in that department, they delivered in spades.
KEIJI MUTOH vs. SCOTT NORTON
These two are both fully capable of stinking up the joint at a moment’s notice, and doing a lot of goofy stuff, and in that regard expecting anything other than “good” is probably setting your expectations a little too high. That said though, there are several instances that this does hit that level. Mutoh has a simple strategy, he knows he’s not going to be able to over power Norton, so he wears him down with various armbars, because whether your arms are the size of Screech or the size of Scott Steiner, having it bent in an unnatural position is going to cause serious pain. Mutoh wisely doesn’t just stick with the arm as if it’s his only chance of survival. He attempts to parlay the advantages he achieves into bigger things, like using his bigger moves.
The ironic thing is that Norton never really needs to do a whole lot of damage to Mutoh. He’s doing a good amount of it to himself. When Mutoh connects with the front dropkick, Norton gets staggered back a few feet, while Mutoh takes a flat bump on his back. Mutoh also nearly drops himself on his head when he does the hurricanrana. And because he’s not doing much of anything substantial to wear Norton down, other than arm locks and some of his favorite moves, Mutoh is mostly just tiring himself out and wasting his energy. That’s really how Norton is able to pull the win out, Mutoh expended a lot of his energy and Norton gets a near fall with a very lax cover, hits a big shoulder block from the top (which goes back to Norton’s lack of selling when he’s not in the arm locks) and then hits his big powerslam to finish off Mutoh. It’s not like Norton won by being a smart worker, or a better wrestler. He just wrestled a guy who didn’t have a good plan going in.
HIROSHI HASE/SHINJIRO OHTANI vs. KENSUKE SASAKI/KOJI KANEMOTO
This is clipped to shreds, which is a shame because it looked like a really fun match. Kanemoto and Ohtani continue their rivalry, with Kanemoto once again beating the tar out of Ohtani, then tagging in Sasaki, so Ohtani could really experience some pain. Kanemoto does his best to hang with Hase, and hits a really hard slap, which Hase shrugs off and returns the favor. Hase brings out the giant swing and gives Kanemoto a whopping thirty-four rotations. The ending in particular really works well, Kanemoto attempts a crucifix but can’t get Hase over, so Ohtani dropkicks Hase and he falls down and squashes Kanemoto like a bug. Both men tag and Sasaki just slaughters Ohtani with a power bomb for the pin, and Kanemoto gloats, over getting a bit of revenge from the night before.
RIKI CHOSYU/JUNJI HIRATA vs. MASAHIRO CHONO/HIRO SAITO
Plug Chosyu into Tenzan’s role and you have almost the exact same match as the day before. Chosyu cleans house early, and Hirata shows no real purpose for his presence, until its time for the heels to get a heat segment on him. The heels get a bit more heat on Hirata this time around though, and Chono constantly sends him to the floor, just because he can do that. A double team gone awry (thanks to Saito taking too long to get up top) winds up with Saito on the wrong end of the Riki Lariat and Saito once again takes the fall. That’s twice now that Saito had dropped the ball, Chono ought to think about finding a different partner. Almost as if he read my mind, as I finish that thought, Chono chews out Saito for the loss and walks out on him.
RICK STEINER/SCOTT STEINER vs. MIKE ENOS/SCOTT NORTON
How these two teams put on a match as good and fun as this, the world will never know. It’s not too much of a shock because of the presence of the Steiners, but rather due to their opponents. It starts out looking like the usual generic power match, until The Steiners target Norton’s arm, like Mutoh had done the night before. Norton responds by doing something unheard of . . . he sells it, and does a hell of a job of it at that. Rick and Scott don’t use any of those armbars or technical stuff like Mutoh was. They attack by kicking, stomping, and punching Norton’s arm, and are a bunch of nasty SOB’s.
With Enos left on his own, he tries to put a flurry of offense together, and lasts all of ten seconds, before they start taking him apart with various suplexes. The Steiners for all intents and purposes, destroy him, but they can’t get the pin. Not because he’s kicking out, but because they keep pinning him near the ropes. When they finally figure out what it is they need to do, and hit the big Doomsday Bulldog, here comes Norton, charging down the ramp to save his partner, to a huge pop. Rick and Scott go right back to his shoulder to take him out of the picture again, and hit Enos with their Doomsday DDT to finally put him down. It’s not a match about dangerous suplexes, although Rick and Scott did do their fair share of them, it’s about a simple and effective story being told, and Scott Norton doing a respectable sell job for once in his career. ***
SHINYA HASHIMOTO © vs. HIROYOSHI TENZAN (IWGP Heavyweight Title)
This match is great, not only for how it establishes Hashimoto as the top dog, and as a legit bad ass, but also for how well it tries to make Tenzan into a bigger star, in defeat. Hashimoto discovers early on that he’s not in there with just some young guy, and Hashimoto finds out that his kick and chop offense isn’t going to cut it, at least not yet. Tenzan has an invisible shield on his body it seems. Hashimoto fires off on him, and Tenzan takes it all and asks for more. Tenzan then one-ups Hashimoto and fires off his own chops, and sends the champion staggered back, clearly surprised. Hashimoto finally wins a strike battle with Tenzan, but right after that Tenzan gets another one up on him. It comes after Hashimoto levels Tenzan with the roundhouse to the ribs, thinking he has Tenzan right where he wants him, Hashimoto goes for the spinning heel kick and Tenzan dodges it, allowing Tenzan to hit the ropes and then level Hashimoto with one of his own.
Tenzan’s inherent problem is that he finds ways that he can get Hashimoto distracted and make him vulnerable, but can’t always parlay that into a full out advantage and chance to win the title. After Tenzan has Hashimoto reeling from surprising him with his own striking ability, his best idea is to claw and tear at his face, instead of trying to find a focal point for his offense. Hashimoto first gets himself an offensive advantage over Tenzan by working over his arm, and when Tenzan is weakened is when Hashimoto can attack. Tenzan may have surprised Hashimoto with his ability to suck up pain from the strikes and fire back, but a wounded Tenzan can’t do that, and Hashimoto hacks away at him, telling Tenzan that he’s still just a kid and has no business being in the ring with him. When Tenzan does start trying to suck up the pain again, Hashimoto leg sweeps him right off his feet and down on the mat.
Tenzan does get a few near falls on Hashimoto, but the path to those near falls never suggests that Tenzan really could get the win. The mountain bomb was more of a surprise move than anything else, and while it was impressive that Tenzan got the big guy up for the powerbomb, it never came across like Tenzan had it won. His second attempt at the powerbomb puts him back into an armbar, which Hashimoto had established as his backup. Hashimoto surviving the diving headbutt and the moonsault is pretty much the icing on the cake as far as the match result goes. It’s more of a testament to Tenzan that he was able to survive Hashimoto’s DDT, than it is to Hashimoto that he won the match. It’s sort of funny that Hashimoto used the Vertical Drop Brain Buster too win, seeing as Tenzan is known for having such a hard head. ***1/4.
KANTARO HOSHINO vs. OSAMU KIDO
Hoshino looks like he found the fountain of youth, he looks identical to how he looks today, ten years haven’t done a thing to change his features. This is fun, if a bit basic, it’s not so much a match as it is a technical exhibition. They each start off working simple holds, both focusing on the neck, with the full nelson, the headlock, the head scissors, etc. As time winds down they start trying to work in moves and holds to potentially get the win, particularly Kido’s Waki-gatame, and several small package attempts. The ten minute time limit runs out and it’s a draw, it’s disappointing to see Hoshino just shake his hand and walk away, rather than attacking him like the dirty heel that formed the Makai Club would have.
NORIO HONAGA © vs. KOJI KANEMOTO (IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title)
This is almost criminally short, but they pack enough in with what they have to work with. The opening stretch is a thing of beauty. Kanemoto starts off acting like his usual self, being the arrogant punk that he is, and Honaga, the grumpy veteran just slaps the taste out of his mouth. Honaga hits him with a jumping neckbreaker drop off the top, followed with a Frankensteiner for a close two-count. And it’s like a lightbulb suddenly goes off in Kanemoto’s head. Forget being the arrogant punk who shows no respect, he’s wrestling for the most prestigious title in the business, he needs to actually wrestle a match.
Kanemoto’s first order of business is to cut off Honaga as he goes back up top, Kanemoto’s dropkick knocks him backwards on the floor. Kanemoto follows it up with a diving body press, and an especially brutal German suplex on the apron. After rolling him back in, he does the rolling senton and does the Tiger suplex to finish off Honaga and win the title. It was definitely on the short side, although it’s not out of the question to think that the German on the apron could have almost knocked Honaga unconscious. It’s a nice change to see Kanemoto worried about actually working the match, than simply slapping and worrying about being all heelish. The match could have used more time, and probably a few instances of Kanemoto straying away from his plan and having it blow up in his face. But such is life in the junior division without Lyger, where they’re just small guys and undeserving of equal treatment. This was not the way to handle the first major title win for Kanemoto.
GRAN HAMADA © vs. SHINJIRO OHTANI (UWA Jr. Heavyweight Title)
For Ohtani’s first major title victory, this doesn’t look like the epic hard fought, and hard earned victory that a young gun like Ohtani should have had. Nearly the entire match is a lot of your move then my move stuff, without much in the way of big moves. Neither man really shows any defined role, even though young punk vs. grizzled veteran was right out in the open. Hamada will hit some stuff, and make a mistake allowing Ohtani to get control, such as the rather impressive looking arm drag while Hamada is in midair. Ohtani will then hit some stuff, make his own mistake and allow Hamada to take control back, like his blind charge that got him sent to the floor. The only really big moves came from Hamada, like the Tornado DDT, and a brutal Uranage. Ohtani’s patented springboard dropkick is only attempted once, and he misses it. Ohtani attempts his Dragon suplex, but it only leads to a reversal sequence and Ohtani gets the win via sloppy looking sunset flip. This is definitely not a good example of what the two of these guys could have done together, or how the match with Ohtani’s first major title win should have been handled.
SHINYA HASHIMOTO © vs. SCOTT NORTON (IWGP Heavyweight Title)
This doesn’t look like your typical ‘monster gaijin vs. native champion’ title match, Norton gets hardly any offense at all, and plays a very sympathetic role. His arm is still taped up from the damage that Mutoh caused, and the Steiners aggravated, and Hashimoto is a total bastard blasting it, and not letting up. Hashimoto is very straightforward with his game plan. He attacks the arm various ways, such as with his roundhouse kicks, at one point he dropped a knee right on the elbow joint, and another time he used a nasty looking arm buster over the shoulder. While Norton is trying to recover from that, he uses the opening to hit his trademark kicks, chops, DDT, etc.
It puts Norton in a role that’s not very common to see a monster gaijin put into, the sympathetic role. Norton is hindered already thanks to the arm, and Hashimoto not letting up on it puts some serious babyface heat on him, and the fans are soon chanting his name. Although not as well as he was doing in the previous tag match, Norton does a quite nice job selling his shoulder. It also means that Norton gets hardly any offense in, and the match comes across more like an extended squash than a title match probably should. It isn’t Kobashi vs. Nagata by a long shot, but Norton could have used more than the final few minutes for an offensive run. The short string by Norton is put together pretty nicely though, it starts with him getting an adrenaline rush as Hashimoto is laying in kicks to his arm, and trying to charge straight at him and take him by surprise. As soon as Norton hits the powerslam and Hashimoto kicks out, the rush fades away and Norton is back to clutching his arm. He attempts a second powerslam but his arm gives out due to the weight of Hashimoto, and the champ locks in a nasty reverse juji-gatame and Tiger Hatori stops the match. Although the Tenzan match was more competitive, this is definitely the better match due to better storytelling, and the fact that they both had more defined, albeit different from the usual, roles. ***1/2
Conclusion: Well the last two Norton matches were a huge pleasant surprise. Although there was nothing really blow-away great and both junior title matches were disappointing, the action was very solid from top to bottom, rather than being top heavy. It’s not the greatest example of what I was shooting for with reviewing an older tape, but it’s still a decent tape. Thumbs up for Fighting Spirit 1995.