CHAMPIONS CARNIVAL 2008, parts 1 & 2
review by Mike Campbell
This the first half of the Complete Edition of the 2008 Champions Carnival Tournament, it’s a commercial release of all matches of the tournament shown in full. This part contains the Block A matches, and the second part has the B block matches and the finals.
Hiroshi Tanahashi... finally seems to have found his calling, by being a pretty boy arrogant heel
KEIJI MUTOH vs. TAIYO KEA
The tournament begins with one of longest running storylines in All Japan, Kea’s quest to finally score the win over his former mentor, tag team partner, and rival, Mutoh. Actually, this is fairly good effort from them, and until they go off the deep end, this looks to have promise. Kea seems to know that he’s not going to be able to trade licks and bombs with Mutoh and win, so Kea looks to keep Mutoh grounded to get the advantage. It’s a good idea in theory, but Kea doesn’t seem to know exactly what to do with Mutoh when he’s got him on the mat, so he sits there and fumbles around with armbars. Mutoh finally gets off the mat and hits Kea with two quick Dragon screws and then turns the tables on Kea by both keeping the pressure on his knee and softening his neck by putting on an STF. Kea hasn’t ever been much for selling, but he was really good here, when he finally escapes, he’s great at selling both the damage done to his neck and the fatigue from the STF. When Mutoh traps Kea in the corner and hits the first Shining Wizard of the match, Kea’s selling is beautiful.
Kea’s selling is the high point of the match though, after he gets warmed up a bit with throwing chops and kicks, Mutoh and Kea commence to what they seemed to be trying to avoid, throwing out bombs. Mutoh has a pile of Shining Wizards and his dragon screw neck whip (which, if nothing else, got a great reaction due to Kea’s neck already being in rough shape), and Kea has the TKO and variation of them, but they’re just throwing them out without any real build to them. Actually, Mutoh is a bit more forgivable here since, again, he’d worn down Kea’s neck, but Kea had ceased to sell it to any great degree, so Mutoh could have done something other than the Wizard to give the idea that he was trying to wear down the neck for the Wizard. It’s finally too much for Kea and he falls once again to Mutoh, and does a stretcher job to boot.
TOSHIAKI KAWADA vs. SATOSHI KOJIMA
Aside from the VM cheating, there isn’t much that separates this from Kojima’s Triple Crown win over Kawada from 2/05. Kawada controls the bulk of the match, and while that helps the match turn out a lot better from moment to moment, it doesn’t do much for Kojima’s credibility. Of course it’s more forgivable here since, Kojima is coming off a failed challenge for the titles against Sasaki. The basic premise is that Kojima tries to be the bad ass heel, and Kawada outdoes him. Kojima tries to light up Kawada with chops, and Kawada turns the table. Kojima takes a break and tries to go after Kawada’s knee, and Kawada escapes his leg hold with a single kick. Unless TARU distracts the ref or one of the VM members gives him an assist, Kojima is clearly in trouble.
In a way, it makes sense that they go that route since Kawada is broken down and past his prime, but it’s also disappointing that someone as good as Kawada and as experienced as Kojima didn’t try anything more ambitious. One of their best moments comes when Kojima and Kawada and jockeying over a suplex on the apron and Kojima wins with a DDT. It’s a fairly common spot, but usually just a simple way to let the other wrestler take over on offense, Kawada, however, puts it over very nicely, making it actually matter. TARU and the other VM give Kojima some plunder to help him finish off Kawada, but even a brainbuster on a chair won’t keep down Dangerous K, but Kojima’s lariat finally does the trick. It seems odd that the lariat would do it, when the brainbuster couldn’t but it keeps Kojima’s lariat over as a finisher, and gives the impression that Kojima can also beat someone fair and square.
HIROSHI TANAHASHI vs. TAIYO KEA
Why is Tanahashi, who’s only had one other singles match and a couple of tags, working better matches with Kea than Mutoh, who’s probably worked with Kea 100 times? The only thing that kept this from being a very good match was Kea’s selling (big surprise there), the early feeling out stuff isn’t very interesting, but they make up for that by having plenty of intensity. Kea’s neck is bandaged from his ordeal with Mutoh, but he just rips it right off to show how much it’s bothering him. They settle down and start focusing the match with Tanahashi working over Kea’s knee, and the Korakuen Hall fans are *not* happy about that. And, bless him, Tanahashi just keeps on sharking away and giving the fans all the more reason to dislike him. He slams the knee into the post, and puts on a seated figure four, and when Kea gets the ropes, Tanahashi refuses to break. When Kea starts mounting a comeback, Tanahashi hits him low to end the comeback.
As fun as Tanahashi is, it’d help tremendously if Kea would just sell for him. Kea’s selling was a big reason for his match with Mutoh being as fun as it was, but Kea didn’t seem to have two nights of selling in him. When he mounts his comeback from Tanahashi working over his leg, he’s throwing out kicks like his leg is perfectly fine. When Tanahashi hits him low, it’s all of one minute before he’s back on his feet and trying to fight back. Kea does have a few good tricks up his sleeve however, when he’s trying to do the Surfing suplex and Tanahashi blocks, he opts to do a couple of backbreakers and then go for the Cobra clutch. Kea also blocks an attempted Sling Blade into the sickest backdrop driver that you’ll ever see. He planted Tanahashi like a railroad spike. Aside from those few spots, all Kea needs to do is just sit back and let Tanahashi do his thing, because the fans are eating it up and are dying to see Kea take him down.
Toward the end, the match becomes a bit like Kea/Mutoh with them trading big moves, but, again, Tanahashi has the decency to sell the big moves from Kea, and to not lather, rinse, repeat the same spot over and over again. Tanahashi charges into a TKO and he looks all but done, but Kea delays his cover and Tanahashi barely kicks out. Despite the knee seeming to be Tanahashi’s focal point, it was Kea’s neck that came back to haunt him, they did a good job of fighting over the Dragon suplex and Tanahashi hits the Sling Blade and then hits two High Fly Flows for the win. Even then, instead of the usual ‘finisher, near fall, and repeat the finisher’ sequence that most do, Tanahashi doesn’t waste time and goes right back up for the second splash to finish him off. It makes sense to use his finisher, but given the damage done to Kea’s knee and neck, a submission finish would have seemed more suitable, Tanahashi had already won a big match with a Texas Cloverleaf, and he’s used the Dragon sleeper forever, and tapping out a former Champions Carnival winner and Triple Crown Champion would establish Tanahashi right from the get go as someone to watch out for. ***1/4
KEIJI MUTOH (2) vs. SATOSHI KOJIMA (2)
Aside from the armbar finish, there isn’t much here that’s any real surprise. Kojima does his usual Kojima stuff and Mutoh does his usual Mutoh stuff. There’s a nice touch with a second referee on the floor to keep the VM from getting involved, since their interference is what got Kojima his first win. Kojima works in his usual brawling and a couple of familiar spots, like the Koji cutter. Mutoh does at least a dozen Shining Wizards from various places. Mutoh’s Fujiwara armbar seems like a mandatory spot at first, but Kojima keeps on selling his arm and they play off it well. Mutoh first tries for Shining Wizards, thinking that, like Kea, the injured body part will make the move more effective (in this case Kojima’s inability to block it), Kojima does block it at first, and continues to put over the effects on his arm from blocking until he can’t block it anymore, but Mutoh’s still not worn down enough to be finished off by the move.
Kojima’s Hulk-Up and lariat is forgivable, because he wasn’t so over the top and goofy with it. He showed that he was fighting through the pain because he thought that as much as it would hurt him to do the lariat, it’d hurt Mutoh more and he could get the win, but like Mutoh’s theory about the Shining Wizard, Mutoh wasn’t worn down enough. The second Hulk-Up and lariat is just stupid though. Mutoh goes back to the armbar, and with nobody able to help Kojima, he’s forced to give it up. It’s too bad they didn’t do more to keep the arm in focus, they could have taken the match in a more interesting, and unique (for them anyway) direction. It’s fun enough for what it is, but there was definitely room for improvement.
TOSHIAKI KAWADA vs. TAIYO KEA
I can understand that All Japan didn’t want their major tournament to have any short squashes, especially with only five wrestlers per block, but there was just no way that Kea needed to get as much offense as he did, or that it needed to go as long as it did. Kea attacking at the bell and hitting a quick TKO was fine, but once Kawada started zeroing in on Kea’s neck, that should have been the end of Kea on offense. Kawada’s offense is simple enough, it’s a mostly chops and knee strikes to Kea’s neck, but after having seen the progression of the Kea neck injury throughout the tournament, its effectiveness is crystal clear. Kawada also stretches him out with a Stretch Plum and even locks in a front neck lock to keep the pain coming.
Kea’s selling is generally fine, like the match with Mutoh, he’s great about making the holds that Kawada uses look so effective, his selling after the neck lock is exceptionally good. Kea didn’t need to start throwing out bombs as the match wore down, they only thing they wound up accomplishing was giving the illusion that Kea was putting up a fight, making the match go longer, and making them less credible as finishers in the case of the TKO 34th and the H50. Kea does get something right with a small package near fall, but that’s about it. What’s even worse about Kea throwing out bombs is how many big ones Kawada needs, which is zero. The biggest move out of Kawada is either a brainbuster or a powerbomb, both with the idea to work the neck. Kawada winds up finishing Kea with a knee drop off the second rope to the back of his neck. He didn’t use any big moves because he didn’t need them. The loss doesn’t make Kea look bad because of the shape he was in when he went into the match. The only thing that caused Kea to look bad was Kea himself.
KEIJI MUTOH (4) vs. HIROSHI TANAHASHI (2)
If you’re a big fan of body part psychology, then this is right up your alley. Mutoh and Tanahashi both do a very respectable job of tearing each other’s knees apart . . . eventually. Before they can get there, they have to kill enough time to get the match to go to the time limit. So they lay on the mat in rest holds, Tanahashi at least somewhat foreshadows what he’s going to do to Mutoh by holding a leg lace, but he doesn’t embellish anything, he just sits there and holds it. Once they’ve killed enough time, this turns into quite the fun ride, Tanahashi strikes first blood with a Dragon screw, and proceeds to shark in on Mutoh’s leg with the same sort of smug arrogance that he displayed with Kea the day before, and once again the crowd hates him for it. Mutoh’s selling isn’t anything outstanding, but at least he does attempt to sell. Once Mutoh turns the tables and goes after Tanahashi’s leg, the crowd erupts, not so much for anything Mutoh is doing, but because the arrogant outsider is getting a taste of his own medicine. Tanahashi also has the bonus of some beautiful selling here, which goes a long way toward the crowd being as heated as they are.
With all the knee sharking going on, it’s no great surprise that this winds up being your typical Keiji Mutoh match, lots of Dragon screws and Shining Wizards, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it makes sense with where the match is going, but it’s not always very interesting. Take Mutoh’s extended figure four leg lock. It makes sense for Mutoh to use one of his tried and true submissions, but by having Tanahashi survive for so long and then get the ropes, doesn’t say a whole lot about the move’s effectiveness, especially when the knee was already hurting. Thankfully, Tanahashi a few tricks up his sleeve to keep Mutoh on his toes, when Mutoh is gearing up for a Shining Wizard, Tanahashi springs to action and counters him with a Sling Blade (although Mutoh just blew it off and did the Dragon screw anyway). When Mutoh is attempting what feels like his fifteenth Dragon screw, Tanahashi hits a big slap to break Mutoh’s grasp. Tanahashi also shows that he can think on his feet when a Sling Blade attempt goes wrong, he puts on a Dragon sleeper, to cover it.
The negative to the match is that, as fun as it is, the knee work is all just filler. As the clock ticks down, they’re more worried about getting the win with the bombs than they are with having a logical match. Mutoh is going up for moonsaults, and Tanahashi is trying to win with the High Fly Flow. It makes sense to try to try to win with their best moves, but there’s no reason to completely ignore the story of the match up to that point to do it. Had Mutoh not already used it for a long time, then Tanahashi being stuck in the figure four and trying to play beat the clock would have made a great finish, or if you want to keep the heat on Tanahashi, Mutoh playing beat the clock in the Texas Cloverleaf would have sufficed just fine. Instead, Mutoh getting cradled for a near fall on a moonsault attempt is the best thing they come up with. Tanahashi at least leads in with the knee in the form of a grounded Dragon screw and hits the High Fly Flow and then goes back up for a second one only to miss and time runs out when Mutoh is going back up for the moonsault. Even the staple of Giant Baba’s booking in the 1980's the double count out would have worked here, with their knees being in too bad shape to let them beat the count. Instead they go with the time limit draw after throwing out bombs, which winds up leaving a fun match with a bad taste at the end. ***
SATOSHI KOJIMA (2) vs. TAIYO KEA
Just like Kawada’s match with Kea, this was fine until Kea decided he needed to go on offense before he lost. Kojima is no prince himself, but even he was serviceable here. His heel turn had caused him to work a more brawling style anyway, and coupled with Kea going into the match with a bad neck, and the results weren’t shocking. Kojima’s work wasn’t anything mind blowing, although he did surprise a couple of times, like his frankensteiner off the top. Kea was also good enough to bring out the good selling, when Kojima would hit him with even a chop across the chest, Kea would wince, and when Kojima brought out heavier guns like the frankensteiner and a neckbreaker, Kea would put it over great, and wiggle his fingers to make sure his neck wasn’t broken. Of course, Kojima also went into the match with the banged up arm, and despite using that arm a good bit, he didn’t once sell the arm while on offense, even when he used it for his signature elbow.
Aside from his early attacks using the guardrail and his one armbar attempt (which went nowhere) Kea leaves the arm alone, he’s more concerned with throwing out his kicks and working in signature spots than he is with doing anything that people might think would help him win the match. He could have aimed his kicks at the arm, and used them as a lead in for the jumping DDT or the TKO, but he didn’t. It was just Taiyo Kea doing Taiyo Kea’s spots. The one exception is Kojima’s missed lariat into the Surfing suplex. The Michinoku Driver on the chair from Kea and followed by the TKO 34th was the only time that anyone thought Kea had a prayer of winning, and given that Kojima had already beaten Kawada and was going to be on the shelf anyway, there wasn’t any reason to not give Kea the win here. But even then, it’d have just been Kea lucking into the win, rather than him actually earning it. Kea also has the bright idea to no-sell Kojima’s lariat to the back of the neck (which is heavily bandaged) just so Kojima can do a second lariat and beat him. When you’re getting outworked by Kojima of all people, something is horribly wrong.
TOSHIAKI KAWADA (2) vs. HIROSHI TANAHASHI (3)
After seeing their exchanges during the 3/1 tag match, one would expect this to be a fairly intense brawl. It’s not a bad thing that they don’t totally go down that route, especially with them having to do a thirty-minute draw, but by going the conventional way, they rob the match of a lot of potential excitement. If nothing else, Kawada and Tanahashi work a smarter early stretch than Mutoh and Tanahashi did, instead of just killing time with meaningless holds, they try to lay the groundwork for something. The idea that Tanahashi isn’t intimidated by Dangerous K. Tanahashi doesn’t show the smug side of himself that he’d been showing before. He simply faces the music. When they lock up, Tanahashi backs Kawada into the corner and breaks clean. When they do a knuckle lock, Kawada gets the easy advantage, but he can’t break Tanahashi’s bridge. The usual way this ends is with Kawada helping him to his feet and then Tanahashi doing a monkey flip to escape the hold. But Tanahashi jumps to his feet by himself, not needing the help, on effect, telling Kawada that he may be a legend, but that he can’t take Tanahashi lightly.
Tanahashi does finally let his smug side out, with some fun results, it first shows up after he once again backs Kawada into the ropes, but instead of a clean break, he slaps him right across the face. Kawada blows his top and winds up chasing him to the floor, Tanahashi gets in and hits a baseball slide, followed by a plancha. He tries to whip him into the guardrail, but Kawada reverses it. When Kawada gets him into the ring, he does what he does best, he opens up a can of the ass-whip. It’s fun to watch, but Kawada already did that to him in the 3/1 tag. Given the overall importance of this match, Kawada should have been more concerned with trying to win. Nobody would believe that a series of kicks to the back and midsection would get Kawada the win. Tanahashi isn’t all that much better, when he’s got control of things, he’s more concerned with the cheap shots than he is with trying to win. They’re good for a chuckle, such as when he tries to steal Kawada’s half crab and face stomp. But, again, it’s nothing that anyone thinks that Tanahashi will use to win the match. After he’d spent both of his last matches working over the knee area of his opponents, it makes sense that he’d not do it here, so as not to appear to be repetitive and formulaic. But if there was ever an opponent who could make that work to a tee, it’s Dangerous K. The extended elbow exchanges between them were great for getting over the tension, but they didn’t do much to take the match in a meaningful direction.
Most of the good action in the match happens within the last ten minutes, they both seem to realize what they need to do and they commence to doing it, but it’s about ten minutes too late to make much difference. Kawada stretches him out for a bit with Stretch Plum, and then tries to beat him with his signature moves like the Ganmengiri and powerbomb. Tanahashi goes after Kawada’s knee and, surprise, Kawada’s selling is almost perfect. Tanahashi goes for the High Fly Flow and tries for the pin after the move, instead of instantly repeating it. When that doesn’t work, he tries for the Texas Cloverleaf. While the action picks up tremendously, it’s far from perfect. It’s a sad sight to watch Kawada swing and miss not once, but twice with the face kick, and when he finally hits, he’s so careful about making contact, that it looks like nothing resembling a knockout strike. Also, while the intent was good, the Texas Cloverleaf looked very bad. Given their exchanges on 3/1, Kawada’s track record, and the remarkable performances that Tanahashi had been putting on in this tournament, this could have easily been the best match of the entire tournament, but it’s not even the best match of the block.
TOSHIAKI KAWADA (3) vs. KEIJI MUTOH (5)
Everyone should sell the Shining Wizard the way Kawada sells the one that Mutoh hits as soon as the bell rings. If they did so, then maybe Mutoh wouldn’t need to be doing about ten of them in each match. That’s actually the high point of this match, it doesn’t really say much about the match, but Kawada’s sell job is phenomenal. The rest of the match is like the Mutoh/Kojima match without the surprise armbar ending. Mutoh does Mutoh stuff and Kawada does Kawada stuff, and this time around Kawada picks up the win. It’s sad to say, but a ten minute sprint was probably the best way to go. They’ve both had flashes of their past brilliance shine through, but neither of them are the workers they were once upon a time. Kawada’s selling is still exceptional, and he doesn’t whiff any of his kicks this time, but he appears to be going through the motions, and Mutoh’s execution varies greatly. If nothing else, they at least knew that they didn’t need to try anything ambitious. Their goal was to get Tanahashi to the finals and they did just that.
SATOSHI KOJIMA (4) vs. HIROSHI TANAHASHI (4)
If you need an indication of just how much the fans dislike Tanahashi, then you just need to listen the crowd in this match. They actually cheer for Kojima, and there is a decent sized pop when TARU interferes for him. With Kojima’s arm already in bad shape, it’s no surprise how this goes. Tanahashi is as fun and heelish as ever with Kojima’s arm, it’s just too bad that Kojima couldn’t sell his arm the first time around, as good as he did the second time. Late may be better than never, but consistency and timeliness is better than late. The lead in to the arm is good stuff, with TARU slipping a chair into the ring, and Kojima and Tanahashi having a bit of a contest over who can outdo who with the cheap shots. Tanahashi wins and hits Kojima right in his bad arm with the chair, and it picks up from there. It’s a bit like Tanahashi/Kea, with Kojima not needing to do anything because Tanahashi is so good with the stuff he uses. But Kojima doesn’t feel like selling very well, and he doesn’t let Tanahashi do his thing. He frequently cuts him off for extended strike exchanges, using his bad arm no less, and even does the elbow from the top (and he lets them chant along with him).
Kojima does finally decide to sell after a Koji cutter, but he puts on the best selling I’ve seen from him, possibly ever. Tanahashi used most of his really heelish things the first time around when Kojima didn’t feel like selling, but he’s got some good stuff up his sleeve, the Dragon screw arm whip is certainly unique, and his Dragon sleeper fake out to the armbar was great. Kojima’s idea of how to take back control was more than a bit odd, he let Tanahashi do his dropkick of the top rope and just no sold it. But then he hits the lariat, with the bad arm, and the sell job is wonderful. Why can’t Kojima work like this all the time? He rolls to the floor writhing in pain. They even have the doctor check on him. When Kojima rolls back in Tanahashi charges into another lariat, with the other arm, for a good near fall. Kojima gears up for another lariat and before we can wonder if he’s going to completely kill his great selling for before, Tanahashi counters into a small package for the win, and the distinction of being the only wrestler in the block to go undefeated. Considering that he got watchable matches out of Mutoh, Kea, and Kojima, it’s a safe bet to call Tanahashi the MVP of the tournament. ***1/4
Part One Comments: The big reason to get this is the Tanahashi matches, but there’s still plenty of fun to go around, even without him. All Japan often suffers from fun booking, but disappointing in the ring. But this is clearly a step in the right direction for them. Thumbs up for the first half the 2008 Champions Carnival.
This is the second half of the Champions Carnival. The wrestlers assigned to the A and B blocks were actually quite fitting. Block A had the big names and established stars of the tournament. Block B, on the other hand, contains the young upstarts, and the wrestlers who are established don’t have as much name value, despite their credentials. So they really are, essentially, the B-Team.
Joe Doering... proves that power being more important than technique isn’t exclusive to the feds in the US
MINORU SUZUKI vs. JOE DOERING
I’ve seen more than enough of his matches to know that Minoru Suzuki can have good matches, but apparently Joe Doering isn’t a wrestler that can have one with. It’s not all Joe’s fault. His typical North American powerhouse offense doesn’t always mesh well with Suzuki’s cagey quasi-shooter type. There are things Suzuki can do to lead to Doering’s powerhouse offense, like his failed piledriver attempt that allows Doering to do an Alabama slam. But the reverse isn’t true, when Joe gets trapped in Suzuki’s submissions or chokes, all he can really do is sit in the hold until Suzuki either lets go or gets him to the ropes.
Suzuki actually wins the match twice, he chokes out Joe about a minute in (the ref checks on Joe and his arm drops three times) and he actually taps out to an armbar, which Joe tries to cover up by wailing away to look like he’s struggling. Beyond those, all they really have at their disposal are exchanges of Suzuki’s slaps and Joe’s forearm shots. Sometimes they lead to something amusing, like when Joe gets pissed and actually chases Suzuki around the ring, but it’s mostly just mundane. The message that this sends out is loud and clear, that size takes precedence over skills. Suzuki was wiping the mat with Joe, but all it takes is one good lariat and a spiral bomb (although he makes Joe really fight for it) to end things. It’s fun at times, but it’s too much of a styles clash to really be anything more.
KENSUKE SASAKI vs. OSAMU NISHIMURA
Given that Sasaki held the Triple Crown at this point, the time limit draw finish is obvious. He can’t take too many losses, but since the tournament winner gets a title shot, he can’t go too far in it either. This appears to have the same ‘Power vs. Technique’ story that Doering/Suzuki had, but it’s a much different dynamic with Nishimura’s 1970's style offense as opposed to Suzuki’s shootstyle offense. Not to mention that Sasaki doesn’t have much to do outside of his trademark stuff, other than chops and perfunctory holds, so this isn’t exactly the most exciting thirty-minute draw. They trade chops and European Uppercuts, for it seems like forever and Sasaki eats up time with rest holds. Nishimura at least tries to add something different to the mix, even though it’s just him doing his usual routine. He gives Kensuke his clean break in the corner and the chest slap, and also makes sure to work in his bridge spot.
It’s not until almost two-thirds into the match that it looks like it’s going to get interesting, when Nishimura starts to unload his European Uppercuts on Kensuke’s leg and then locks him in a figure four. Sasaki, like Tanahashi, lingers in the hold for far too long before he gets the ropes. Nishimura looks like he’s going to continue going after the leg, but Sasaki stops that before the match starts getting too engrossing. He gives Nishimura a chop, and then, just to really be annoying, does the Ippon Seionage without any problem with his leg. Sasaki then decides to try to play the submission game himself, with his Stranglehold Gamma and two extended crab holds, with the brilliant idea of building up to the crab holds with a bodyslam. Nishimura comes back with an abdominal stretch, and Kensuke’s idea of putting that over is to escape by doing a hip toss to Nishimura, over the top rope no less. The clock starts ticking and they both start digging out offense to try to get the win. Sasaki finally sells his knee . . . to explain why he delays in going to the pin after the Northern Lights Bomb, but time runs out before either of them can get the win. This was just way too long, too dull, and had too much of Kensuke sucking. The funny thing is that they had the chance to do something good staring them right in the face with Kensuke’s knee. He could hold Nishimura to the draw, but then Suzuki, Suwama, and Doering all take advantage of it in their matches. It’s an easy explanation of why he doesn’t go too far, but doesn’t make him look bad at all.
JOE DOERING (2) vs. OSAMU NISHIMURA (1)
Who’s brilliant idea was it for this to go for twenty-five minutes? There are some good moments, mostly from Nishimura, but neither of them seemed to have enough in the tank. It also doesn’t help that this is once again a huge clash of styles and Joe was too inexperienced to really know what to do with Nishimura. The only times that the match looks like it’s going anywhere is when Nishimura targets a limb, first he goes after the bandaged arm with a hammerlock, but kept bridging out to keep Joe from countering, and then a short arm scissors. But as soon as the hold was released, Joe was back on his feet and throwing chops and clubbing forearms. A bit later on, Nishimura goes after Joe’s knee, and he sells it better than the arm, but it doesn’t allow for much more than Nishimura to dig out the Funk’s spinning toe hold, and a figure four.
When Nishimura isn’t doing any limb work, the match is duller than dirt. They work in the obligatory standing surfboard spot to put over Joe’s strength advantage, but it just goes on for far too long. They try to get over the idea of Joe working over the back for his Canadian Backbreaker (which he winds up using to win), but, aside from digging out the Steiner Recliner, he just uses a lot of clubbing forearms and basic moves. Its Nishimura’s selling that makes it clear what Joe is actually going for. They try to lead into the finish with Nishimura trying to pin Joe, only for Joe to bridge up and put on the hold, but Joe can’t bridge up all the way. He winds up having to almost clutch Nishimura’s head to get up, but then he falls before he can spin around. In short, this is like Doering’s match with Suzuki, only without Suzuki’s interesting offense to keep things fun.
KENSUKE SASAKI (1) vs. SUWAMA
If there wasn’t so much downtime in the first half, then this would have been good, not just good for a time limit draw, but good in general. Once they pick up some steam, the match takes a huge step in the right direction, thanks in part to Kensuke’s selling, and also thanks to Suwama pulling his own weight. They start out smartly by playing off the finish to their previous Carnival match, which saw Suwama score a fluke upset on Sasaki in fourteen seconds. Kensuke comes out with both guns blazing and tries to avenge that by getting a quick pin over Suwama with lariats. When that doesn’t work is when the match takes its nosedive, they start trading off chops, and while it’s not ridiculously over the top like Kobashi/Kensuke, it’s still boring and it’s not like they’re taking the match anywhere with it. They’ve got thirty minutes to kill and they figure that will eat up time and get the crowd excited, and they were only half right.
When Sasaki hurts him arm after he misses the chop, this starts to pick up. Suwama isn’t as devious or heelish as Chono, Mutoh, Tanahashi etc. would have been, but he’s okay with what he does. The rolling short arm scissors was interesting and watching him wrap it around the post almost seemed out of place, like something that SUWAMA, the red-haired VM member would do. Praise the Lord, Sasaki actually sells and sells well. He tries to light up Suwama with chops and sells his arm after each one, it’s weird that he didn’t learn from Kojima, of all people, and switch arms. Watching him continue to chop and then sell his arm almost makes you want to see someone tell him to use the other arm.
Suwama shows some brains of his own by how he uses Sasaki’s arm to create his own openings. It’s doubtful that anyone thinks that Suwama could make him tap (although after Mutoh/Kojima, they could have done to push the envelope), so he instead uses it as a way to work in other stuff. At one point Kensuke whips Suwama into the ropes and Suwama hits him in the arm on his way back to stun him, and then he gives Sasaki a belly to belly for a near fall. Suwama’s use of the Ankle Lock is a bit head scratching, they had the chance to test the waters on a tap out because they’d already established Sasaki’s arm as a weak point, but nobody thinks he’ll get the job done with the Ankle Lock, but again, Suwama is at least smart on how he goes about it. He takes a shot at the arm and then charges Sasaki and rolls into the hold, something that Kurt Angle wishes he was cool enough to do. A bit later on, Suwama catches Sasaki in corner doing the ten-count spot, and hits a power bomb and does the Samoa Joe spot where he puts on a submission after Sasaki kicks out of the pin attempt, in this case back to the ankle lock.
As nice as it is to see them working smart, the bottom line is that they still have to go to the time limit, so eventually the match breaks down into just throwing things at each other to get the crowd into the match. Neither of them do anything overtly offensive, Suwama’s escape of the NLB was actually a great moment, but any sort of flow or idea of them building to something just goes out the window so they can do the big moves and get the near falls. But since they’re going the distance, nothing that they do especially matters. It’s a good sign to see Sasaki holding his arm after spiking Suwama with a Tiger suplex or after his powerbomb variation, and being Sasaki, it’s still miles better than what’s probably expected of him. It’s a good start for Suwama, and a huge improvement for Kensuke, but it’s still below what the A block was doing on the same day.
KENSUKE SASAKI (2) vs. JOE DOERING (4)
If not for the irony involved, this would have been unremarkable, but it’s ironic that, after using his size and power to get to the first place of Block B, Doering would get squashed in the same manner. This is just your generic power guy match, with Joe and Kensuke seeing who can land the hardest shot, Doering with his clubbing forearms or Sasaki and his chops. Matches like that can be fun in the right context, but this isn’t the right context. The basic premise is that Joe tries to stand up to the Triple Crown Champion and show his growth, and Kensuke just mows him right down. They do zero to play up Kensuke’s arm injury from the day before, despite them having an opening with Kensuke’s use of the lariat. The NLB off the second was cool, but it was complete throwaway because Joe just kicked out and Kensuke went right back to the lariat to finish him off. Thanks for that, Ken-suck-e.
SUWAMA (1) vs. MINORU SUZUKI
On the surface, this doesn’t seem to be vastly different from the previous match. They’re about the same length, they both feature the young gun trying to stand up to the veteran and show his growth, but he ultimately fails. Where this differs, and winds up coming out ahead, is the style of a match they go with. Joe and Kensuke went with the power match, which made sense for them, but neither of them actually did a whole lot, and the result was a dull affair. Suzuki and Suwama go with a shootstyle approach, which makes sense with Suwama’s amateur credentials and Suzuki’s history in places like UWF and Pancrase, and they also make sure to not half-ass it. When they are on their feet trading shots, it’s due to the hate they have for each other, and not some ridiculous form of chest thumping.
It seems like this will be a regular match, for all of thirty seconds, then Suzuki lets loose with his big slap, Suwama blows his top, and the fight is on! The only weak parts are when they work a mounted position or a guard, because Suwama really doesn’t know what to do. But other than that, this is less a match and more like a fight. At one point the ref tries to get between them, and Suwama just throws him aside to keep fighting. While he’s clearly going to be outclassed in the submission department, Suwama uses his strength to his advantage by hitting Suzuki with a pair of lariats that floor him, you’d think he got hit by Stan Hansen himself. Suwama’s suplexes seemed out of their element, especially the belly to belly, but he got a nice near fall from the backdrop. What leads to his undoing though is that he just can’t seem to avoid Suzuki’s sleeper hold. Suwama finds counters, and has the wherewithal to get to the ropes for the break, but Suzuki just keeps on coming, and, in the words of the late Owen Hart “Enough is enough” and Suzuki chokes him out. This is actually sort of similar to the Saito/Whaka match from the first NJPW Dome show. They obviously weren’t going to be able to go full tilt UWFI, but they made a good attempt to do something relatively unique.
SUWAMA (1) vs. OSAMU NISHIMURA (1)
This was a bit on the simplistic side, but it made its point. It’s similar to Suwama’s match with TARU from 3/1, in that Suwama just lets Nishimura do his thing until it’s time to go home, but Nishimura has more to do here than TARU did, so the result is a much better match. After Nishimura gets his prerequisite spots out of the way (the clean break and bridge) this starts to get interesting, Suwama shows up Nishimura by countering his abdominal stretch with one of his own, but Nishimura reverses that and seems to go for his cradle, but instead he torques up Suwama’s knee, and spends the better part of the next ten minutes wearing it out. Like Suwama in the Sasaki match, Nishimura doesn’t have the nasty flare that you’d expect from some of his contemporaries, but he shows about as much mean streak as you could expect him to, it was certainly out of left field for him to come down on the leg from the apron while Suwama was on the floor.
Some people would take issue with the finish, namely the backdrop overkill. But it worked in its own little way. First off, Suwama was smart enough to continue selling his leg, instead of forgetting about it so he could look like Superman. Second, he was already behind the 8-ball at this point, so he needed something tried and true to ensure the win, when he tried the Last Ride on Suzuki, he wound up in the sleeper hold, and despite his small size, Suwama’s knee might not be able to let him pull it off. Suwama needed the win here to even have a chance to make the finals. Nishimura goes for a headlock and Suwama hits a backdrop. Nishimura tries again, and Suwama hits it again, and again, and again, and finally Nishimura stays down. There were smarter and more exciting ways for them to go about it, Suwama could have learned from Suzuki and found new ways to catch Nishimura with the move, or maybe changed it up a bit with various types of suplexes, but, again, it made sense in its own way.
KENSUKE SASAKI (4) vs. MINORU SUZUKI (2)
Now this is the right context for an extended exchange of strikes and no-sells. These two are longtime rivals, and they’re in each other’s face before they’re even introduced, so you know already know what to expect from them. Kensuke and Suzuki trade slaps and chops and neither wants to be the first to show weakness. Sasaki because he’s such a tough guy, and Suzuki because he’s a dick. Kensuke just lays into his chest and Suzuki stands there and stares at Sasaki with his trademark smirk and tongue sticking out. Suzuki eventually does have to give in and show that Kensuke’s onslaught is taking its toll on him, but he gets in his own share of respectable shots on Kensuke, so he at least gets to make his own point.
This also has a sort of shoot feel to it, not in the same way that Suwama’s match with Suzuki did, but more like an Edge/Matt Hardy type of shoot, where things feel like they could boil over at any second, which probably isn’t a coincidence, since Suzuki’s specialty is working like he’s gone into business for himself. There isn’t much to see here as far as wrestling goes, Sasaki is content to just run though his usual spots (the only exception seems to be a powerslam from the second rope, but, like the NLB it was a throwaway spot), but Suzuki isn’t content to just let him, which is what eventually does in Kensuke. Suzuki’s counters to Kensuke’s facebuster were welcome sights, and both times that Kensuke looked to have things in the bag, Suzuki would have a counter ready, in the form of his sleeper. Kensuke, like Suwama, was good with counters and escapes, but it only held off the inevitable and Suzuki winds up choking out the Triple Crown Champion. If nothing else, this block seems have the advantage as far as originality goes, the matches they’ve been putting on have been much more unique, and this is yet another example of that. The Triple Crown Champion taking on his longtime rival and the former champion would usually scream out a time limit draw, not a twelve minute sprint with the champion losing.
OSAMU NISHIMURA (1) vs. MINORU SUZUKI (4)
Suzuki and Nishimura have the same goal that Mutoh and Kawada had for their singles match on the same day, to simply ensure that someone else, Suwama in this case, makes it to the finals. However, they don’t let that single goal, or the fact that they’re booked in a four-minute match stop them from making it a fun ride. There’s another moment of irony, with both Doering and Suwama snapping when Suzuki hit his patented slap to the face, this time it’s Suzuki who snaps when Nishimura hits his slap to the chest. Suzuki proceeds to wipe the mat with Nishimura, he doesn’t appear to have any real rhyme or reason for doing anything else, which is understandable with them getting so little time. But Suzuki looks strong throughout, especially with the armbar spot. Nishimura gets the backslide out of nowhere to steal the win and ensure that Suzuki doesn’t make it to the finals. Like Mutoh/Kawada, they accomplished their prime goal, but unlike them, they also made it into a fun ride rather than seeing two washed up wrestlers throwing out their spots.
SUWAMA (3) vs. JOE DOERING (4)
Suzuki’s loss ensures that the winner here goes to the finals, so it’s no surprise that this is a bit on the short side. They mostly use their time well, neither of them had the obvious attack method that Tanahashi did with Kojima’s arm, so they’re left their own devices. They both know what they need to do to win, it’s just a question of who has the right formula. Doering uses what brought him to the dance, that being his power moves. Doering just throws bomb after bomb at Suwama, including not one, but two, Diamond Cutters and several different powerbomb variations. Doering and his bombs make up the bulk of this, it’s not terribly interesting from a wrestling standpoint, but it really gets the crowd behind Suwama.
It’s Suwama who has the winning formula, which is by working smart. Doering is a big guy, so Suwama chops him down to size in the form of the Ankle Lock, and, like his match with Sasaki, he’s smart about working it. He wears him down with what I can only describe as a Dragon screw ankle wrench, and then goes for the kill. Joe gets the ropes the first time he’s stuck in the hold, but Suwama gets it back on as a counter to Doering’s attempt at the spiral bomb, Joe kicks him off, and Suwama goes back to it with his awesome rolling application. Suwama is relentless with the hold and finally Doering has to give it up. It’s a fairly mindless match, but the smart work surrounding the ankle lock is a hell of a nice touch. The result is the important thing here because it’s symbolic. Before going into, arguably, the biggest match of his career up to this point, Suwama vanquished the last ghost from his past, closing the books on that part of his career and moving on toward bigger and better things.
HIROSHI TANAHASHI vs. SUWAMA (Champions Carnival Finals)
And this is what it all comes down to, the cocky New Japan wrestler who more or less skated his way to the finals, taking on the young All Japan wrestler who made it by the skin of his teeth. Not since Kawada/Hashimoto has an All Japan match had such an epic and important atmosphere to it. Tanahashi and Suwama both understand their roles and know exactly what they need to shoot for, and they more than hit the mark, with the results of one of the best heavyweight matches in All Japan in quite some time.
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that this is so good, Suwama and Tanahashi take all the good things from their previous matches and put them all together. The first ten or so minutes seem unfocused, they’re certainly not doing much from a wrestling perspective. But they’re doing an awesome job at getting the crowd behind Suwama with Tanahashi heeling things up left and right. He crowd plays, he disrespects Suwama, and the ref, and the rabid Korakuen Hall fans hate him for it. Suwama, if nothing else, knows how to play along. So when Tanahashi gives him an opening to return the favor, he does it. A good example is when Tanahashi is throwing forearms in the corner and stops to get in the ref’s face, Tanahashi strolls back over and Suwama throws him in the corner and lets loose with his own forearms. There’s another great moment, when Tanahashi was getting the crowd riled up by ramming Suwama’s knee into the post, when Tanahashi stopped to soak up the boos, Suwama hits a slap to the face that would make Minoru Suzuki proud, and again, the Korakuen Hall fans go nuts.
Tanahashi working over Suwama’s knee also isn’t much surprise, working over knees is one of the reasons that Tanahashi was as successful as he was. And the fact that Nishimura had softened up Suwama’s is just gravy. Tanahashi is as dogged and heelish with the knee as he’s always been, and then he seems to forget about it for a while. But just when you think it was only done as filler and feel let down, Tanahashi goes for the High Fly Flow and Suwama gets his knees up to block, and sells the leg that had been worked over, and Tanahashi is right back on it. The Texas Cloverleaf spot is an exceptionally great moment, unlike the Kawada match, Tanahashi has the hold firmly cinched in, and Suwama almost gets the ropes, only to get pulled back to the center and having to start again. And the crowd is once again rabid in support of Suwama.
The key to Suwama’s success is the same thing that led him to victory over Nishimura, the suplexes. But this time around, he’s not as mundane about it. Instead of just constantly doing the same thing, he changes things up a bit. He hits his first backdrop as a counter to the Sling Blade, then he picks up Tanahashi and spikes him with a German suplex. Suwama also pulls out some new offense in the form of a Kobashi Half Nelson suplex, and he uses an overhead belly to belly into the corner. The Last Ride is simply the final nail in Tanahashi’s coffin, but it’s not so easy. The first time he tries for it, Tanahashi escapes out the back door and gets a near fall of his own on Suwama with the trapped-arm German suplex. The second time Suwama tries, Tanahashi had already weakened the knee, but Suwama was still able to get him up, but, again, Tanahashi escapes and got a roll up for another near fall. But Suwama won’t be denied and hits Tanahashi with a big lariat, and then he finally hits the Last Ride (which looks like it utterly kills Tanahashi) to win the biggest match of his career.
While this is certainly a huge step forward for Suwama, and yet another stellar performance from Tanahashi, the match is not without its issues. The main one being the execution, several of Suwama’s suplexes look ugly, the belly to belly in the corner is the worst, which can be partly chalked up to Suwama’s knee. However, despite having the nickname of “Mr. Suplex” early in his career, he’s never really been given a chance to go that route. So it’s no surprise that they don’t always look great. There’s also a couple of times when they had the chance to take advantage of the big match atmosphere with bigger spots that one wouldn’t expect out of them, but they passed it up. The biggest example being when Tanahashi was in position for a sunset flip powerbomb, but instead, he opts to carry Suwama to the middle of the ring and powerbomb him there. But the good and smart work that’s present here far outweighs the disappointing aspects, this is probably the best All Japan match since Kondo and Hayashi stole the show, and the best heavyweight match in All Japan in forever. A fitting end to an exceptionally fun Champions Carnival. ***3/4
For more of Mike Campbell's reviews, visit his site at http://splashmountain.150m.com