Tatsumi Fujinami (c) vs Antonio Inoki
IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Yokohama Bunka Gymnasium, Yokohama, Japan
(reviewed 08/05/2018) A masterclass of escalation and intensity that just barely misses the mark of an all-time classic. In nearly every way this is a step up from their 1985 standout that saw Fujinami clawing his way into the spotlight against New Japan’s god-king. Here the table’s been turned in a huge way. For starters, Fujinami’s a few months into his second reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. It’s not even been 100 days since Inoki had to vacate the title due to injury but even in that time it’s fairly clear that Fujinami has firmly replaced Inoki as New Japan’s top native star. As if to accentuate that fact, this is Inoki’s last shot at the title ever and essentially the last serious title match in his career. (He’d go on to have a few Martial Arts title matches in the coming years but that was nothing more than a vanity belt.) Sensing the shifting sands of time, this Yokohama crowd is GOING NUTS, resulting in an exceptionally loud response that keeps up for nearly this entire match. Even something as simple as Inoki refusing to shake the champ’s hand gets a huge reaction.
Knowing what a singles win over Inoki would mean and knowing also the sting of screwy defeat at the man’s hands, Fujinami is fired up in the opening stretch here. He’s frustrated when he gets caught in the same holds that plagued him three years ago, smacking the mat in anger. When Inoki further humiliates him with a slap, Fujinami basically snaps. He catches an early attempt at an enzuigiri and turns it into a mean giant swing, segueing that into an equally early figure four leglock. It’s a huge spot that’s merely minutes into the match. No foolin’ for either of these men. They came to play, almost as if no one told them how long this match was gonna go.
As with the last match, most of what’s on display here is high quality grappling. That alone is enough to pique my interest, sure, but one thing that sets this apart for me and brings it to near-GOAT status is how these men sell the progression of their careers since their last match through the medium of that grappling. Inoki’s three years older and three years sorer. He’s had to become more crafty and especially more aggressive with age, to the point that he’s essentially cheating at various points throughout this match. Despite that he’s as popular as ever, something he has to rely on here in a way he didn’t back in ‘85. In a notable spot he finds himself again trapped in a figure four and calls on the crowd for their support, drawing both deafening cheers as well as the ire of Fujinami, who cranks on the hold even harder. Fujinami’s role here is also great as he’s basically fighting for his legacy, vying for the ever-elusive Inoki defeat that would cement him forever as a legend. The emotions that are central to these struggles feel so concrete and compelling due to how well these guys milk holds and how well their acting informs those holds.
More than just selling the idea of progression since their last match, what makes this great is the sheer animosity of it all. There’s so much more on the line than there was in ‘85 and neither man is willing to budge an inch. Mostly this results in the way of slaps, thudding kicks, and backdrop suplexes, moves that are a little more personal than your average armbar, but there are bigger spots that also play into the theme of escalation in the years since their last meeting. Both men make repeated use of illegal choke holds. Inoki baits his opponent into using the dropkicks that brought him such success before, reversing one into a torture crab. Later when Inoki unloads a series of slaps on him, Fujinami bristles at the sheer audacity of it all before he’s struck down. Fujinami viciously targets the old man’s knee, going so far as rolling a figure four leglock out to the floor and applying a sasorigatame as soon as he crawls back to the ring. At one point Inoki takes a cheap shot coming out of a rope break and uses the opportunity to apply a figure four of his own with a big shit-eating grin plastered across his face, a rictus of pain and pleasure.
This is a malicious, malicious match that somehow is able to stay as mean as it starts for over 40 minutes. Part of that, I’d say, is how little seems to be pre-planned. Almost nothing comes across premeditated or polished to perfection, giving the match a distinctly wild, organic feeling. (Peep the way Inoki totally bails on Fujinami’s attempt at a superplex around 45 minutes in.) Anything can happen at any time. Anyone can—and often does—explode without warning, though not without reason or weighted consideration. In approaching each spot with an understanding of the hyperspecific situation both men and the match are in at the moment, every move and every movement feels huge and the crowd responds accordingly. Maybe it makes me sound like a cranky old man mad at how picture-perfect (read: un-shitty for a certain sort of fan) everything looks these days, but I just don’t think you get a reaction like this one from a guy practicing his expressions in the mirror for days on end.
Sadly, that instinctive approach is also this match’s greatest weakness. Eventually as the match grows longer and longer the fans realize what’s likely to happen with crafty ol’ Inoki as the challenger in a title match. As the two men march closer to the inevitable 60 minute draw the wild meanness sputters into a sort of aimlessness greeted by the polite—if exuberant—claps from the crowd for reversals and rope breaks. Eventually it just feels like doing moves to get to the finish line, two men digging deep for whatever simple tricks they have left. I don’t think it ever gets bad necessarily, but it pales in comparison to the greatness of the first 40, 45 minutes or so. That might be a small complaint in the grand scheme of things but such qualms are what separate great matches from the greatest matches.
HOW DOES THIS COMPARE TO SHAWN VS TAKER FROM WM25: This comparison’s almost not fair. It’s not like Shawn/Taker has any lack of amazing moments but this match has so much more to work with, both in the realm of great spots and great emoting. Part of the reason that I’m even doing this project is because I earnestly believe I can find 1000 matches better than Shawn/Taker. What chance would it have against a match that I’ve repeatedly referred to as being very nearly an all-timer?
VERDICT: Better than Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker from WrestleMania 25