Antonio Inoki vs Tatsumi Fujinami
Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, Tokyo, Japan
(reviewed 08/05/2018) This is the sort of match that doesn’t work in a vacuum, I think. It’s 35 minutes of mat grappling and a few flashier bits, with a particular figure four leglock eating up an entire seven minute stretch on its own. On paper that reads like a total snoozefest, at least by 2018 standards, but even a little bit of context adds so much to this match and reveals it to be the stuff of legend.
Coming into this bout Fujinami’s sorely outmatched. He’s spent a few years now as a heavyweight but doesn’t have a ton to show for it, with a pair of WWF International Heavyweight title reigns being the only thing he has other than a few runs with various junior belts. Of greater significance is his relationship with his opponent here in this match. Inoki first took Fujinami under his win way back in the early 70s when they were in JWA. Fujinami was one of the people who left that promotion to form NJPW with Inoki and he’s remained a loyalist to the cause ever since. He’s proved that in a big way recently by warring with the invading Riki Choshu, trading the aforementioned International Heavyweight title with him a few times and gutting it out with a big performance in last year’s famous five-on-five gauntlet. Fujinami’s in his early 30s now and is clearly on his way to being a big star, but he hasn’t quite gotten over the hump yet.
So when he finds himself one-on-one with his mentor in the main event of a fairly big show in Tokyo, Fujinami gives it his all. Inoki might be a full ten years older than his opponent but he’s one of the most well-conditioned athletes ever and a killer on the mat, so he controls most of the first 20 minutes of this match. Fujinami’s not getting blown out of the water but he’s spending more time on the wrong end of various holds than not, basically only finding success by picking at Inoki’s ankles. As soon as the pace quickens, however, Fujinami blasts his mentor with a dropkick and keys in on a sasorigatame, easily the most effective move of the match so far and a real moral blow to his opponent. He can’t keep it on long and instead transitions into a figure four that he keeps a hold of for a full seven minutes. It’s not the most thrilling stuff in the world but it’s a huge step up for Fujinami within both the context of this match and his career so the crowd goes nuts for it. Inoki’s selling helps a lot too, as he’s actively fighting to get free but feeling the first pangs of his time on top of the wrestling world winding down. When he finally makes it to the ropes and escapes he tries not to show how badly he’s hurt but still crumples as soon as Fujinami goes after his knee again.
What gets Fujinami in the end is his cockiness. After a second, brief figure four and another dropkick he’s firmly in control of the match, but when he gets cute and tries to hit Inoki with the man’s signature enzuigiri things go south. Inoki avoids it and blasts the kid with an enzuigiri of his own, initiating a back-and-forth finishing stretch where both men are hitting and reversing big moves. Fujinami might be younger/stronger and the bad knee might slow Inoki down but the veteran is craftier and has a proven ace in the hole. Fujinami tries to block a move off the ropes and gets popped in the face for it, feeling the brunt of a crazy knee drop off the top from Inoki moments later. Looking for an out after that big move took even more out of his knee, Inoki then goes for his octopus stretch. Fujinami muscles his way of the first one and is able to get to the ropes on the second attempt, but after that he’s basically got nothing left and Inoki can just effortlessly slip into the move for a third time. After a few still moments referee Lou Thesz calls for the bell, declaring a referee stoppage on account of possible grievous injury.
HOW DOES THIS COMPARE TO SHAWN VS TAKER FROM WM25: I think this question comes down to the heart of what matters most to me in wrestling. Despite it basically being the beginning of the “lay around for minutes at a time” Old-Man-Taker-at-Mania classics, Shawn/Taker is more active and exciting in its early moments than this match is. Likewise it doesn’t take 20 minutes to get around to the real conceit of the match. However, I really love technical wrestling and the first third or so of this match is high quality technical wrestling that builds well to what the conceit eventually turns out to be with Fujinami stepping up. Likewise I enjoy that story—as well as Inoki’s eventual assertion that he’s still on top for now—way more than the half-baked light vs dark themes of Shawn/Taker, in no small part due to my affinity for “old man clings to relevance” stories. There’s a heap of that in Shawn/Taker, sure, but it’s hardly what I’d call the focal point. I wish Inoki’s selling was a little bigger here in the finishing stretch and I wish that he also didn’t go for his flying knee drop after sitting in a hold for that long, but the way those things are handled helps. He sells when he needs to and it feels like a big deal when he does, and the knee drop reads like a desperate move that leads almost directly into the finish. I don’t love it but I’ll take it over the blubbering selling rife in Shawn/Taker every day of the week.
VERDICT: Better than Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker from WrestleMania 25