Hikaru Shida (c) vs Aja Kong
OZ Academy Openweight Championship
taped 09/17/2018, aired 09/29/2018
Yokohama Bunka Gymnasium, Yokohama, Japan
(reviewed 12/11/2018) Man, where do I start with this one? Before the bell, I suppose. In many ways this is a match of consequence and escalation and all of that begins long before the match itself does. This is the sixth singles match between these two women, with the record leaning almost entirely in Kong’s favor at four wins. Their most recent meeting before this was back in 2017 in a match that resulted in a double knockout. None of their matches together have lasted longer than 15 minutes, being real dominant victories for Kong. Unsurprisingly, having just past her tenth year in wrestling and having won what is pretty definitively the most prestigious title of her career, Shida plans on turning things around here and finally defeating the joshi legend.
The first half of the match looks to be business as usual. Despite inching closer and closer to her 50th year on this earth, Kong can still whoop anybody’s ass. Shida finds some brief success by way of speed and leverage early on, but as soon as the match bleeds out onto the floor the veteran settles into a familiar routine: bash opponent with steel trash can, pick them apart limb by limb. Shida’s knee becomes the target and Kong goes to town on it, using a variety of ferocious kicks and chair shots to get things done or just standing atop the damn thing and using her weight to her advantage. Whenever Shida tries to fight her way back into contention, Kong just smacks her down with a well-placed cutoff and a look of “shit, she still ain’t learned” painted across her face.
Kong’s subsequent submission-based domination isn’t quite as fun as her strike-based stuff but it’s far from bad and made quite compelling by Shida’s great selling. She’s very nearly done in by the legwork and never lets you forget it, with the injury playing a constant factor throughout the remainder of the match. In particular it’s central to Shida’s eventual comeback, as she has no real recourse other than to keep using her bad knee to blast her way free. Because shit, what else is she gonna do? She can’t stand toe to toe and trade blows with goddamn Aja Kong. She can’t work her way into holds and hope for a clutch submission, as Kong quickly proves that she’ll just force her way free. All she can do is power through the pain and rely on her speed and her big knee strike finish.
Thankfully it quickly pays off, as a flying knee catches Kong in the arm in a bad way and presents itself as something to key in on. As much as I like Shida’s selling here it was Kong’s reaction to this arm work that caught my eye because it really feels like a savvy veteran’s response to what is clearly a serious concern. She might not be screaming about it the way her opponent is but 30+ years into wrestling Kong recognizes the potential for a serious injury when she sees it and she does everything she can to shut down Shida’s attempts at going after it. When Shida goes to snap it over her shoulder, Kong sneaks her way into a sleeper hold. When Shida attempts an armbar, Kong headbutts the champ’s bad knee to escape. When Shida uses some of the veteran’s brawling tactics to get ahead, Kong hits a desperation brainbuster on the entrance ramp for a huge countout tease. All the while she’s clutching at her dead arm, letting it hang in place as she catches her breath and calculates her next move. It’s not the most in-your-face stuff but it stands out to me in a big way as a subtler, wearier reaction to a worsening injury, something that remains a major factor throughout the rest of the match as much as Shida’s leg does.
As soon as Shida crawls her way back into the ring Kong’s on her, making immediate use of what strength advantage she has left with big suplexes and slams. Her injury and her age are catching up to her, though, as Shida’s able to do the same, bad wheel and all, and this leads Kong to following her opponent’s example and flinging her injured limb against Shida’s face with great abandon. The finishing stretch is heavy on these dead weight backfists and knee strikes and I’d completely understand if someone was turned off by their spamming, but I think the quality selling these women exhibit as well as the fact that they very clearly indicate that they don’t have any other option is what makes it not only ok but really great. The desperate energy of the thing helps too, as Kong gets busted up bad by way of a few different cuts and it kicks this thing into high gear. She again immediately senses the danger she’s in and starts unloading multiple backfists at a time and tries to use Shida’s signature kendo stick against her.
This second strategy backfires, as Shida avoids the weapon she knows so well and buries a big series of knees in her opponent’s already bloated face. It’s far from the flashiest finish of the year but I love that it feels so momentous, that it’s the culmination of Shida fighting through the pain and through years of bitter defeats to beat one of joshi wrestling’s greatest legends. More than any amount of cinematic blubbering or climactic posing, it’s the sheer violence and heart of this match that makes it feel great, both in quality and in consequence. This one will stick with me for a long time, I think. Be sure to see it.
HOW DOES THIS COMPARE TO SHAWN VS TAKER FROM WM25: On top of being delightfully violent, this joshi match manages to deftly navigate the waters of what, to me, is one of the most frustrating trends in professional wrestling. Even aside from watching these two beat the shit out of each other or getting invested in the idea of Shida defeating her nemesis, I admire this match for how well it illustrates dealing with physical pain and being forced to reckon with it in a stressful environment. Shawn/Taker doesn’t do anything nearly so interesting and instead magnifies the worst existing trends and inspires a generation of braindead copycats.
Plus there’s no blood. Like come on, guys, give me something here.
VERDICT: Better than Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker from WrestleMania 25