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[2003-03-23-NJPW-Hyper Battle] Koji Kanemoto vs AKIRA

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Kanemoto vs AKIRA, IWGP junior title, New Japan March 23rd 2003

 

Background: Akira Nogami didn't do much of note in the '90s, including a forgettable run as junior champion. A re-invention in 2000 as part of Chono's stable led to a number of really good technical matches. This is the best of those, as the two of them show remarkable inventiveness and attention to detail.

 

Why I think it's underrated: It's not a highlight-reel spotfest, but more of a chess match. This got some initial praise from show-to-show New Japan viewers but didn't catch the eye of Meltzer et al. I can understand preferring something a bit more spectacular, but this is really tricked-out and stands apart from the usual "tons of nearfalls" Japanese title match cliche.

 

What it deserves: Top 50 consideration. It doesn't hit the dramatic pitch of the very top tier, but creativity and execution make it solid mid-ballot material.

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This was really, really good. They start out in standard juniors match style. Then they go to the big legwork that is a huge part of the match until the end. There is some no-selling, but less than you would think. AKIRA is great late, clawing at the ref and leaving him incapacitated long enough to miss the tapout to an anklelock. Ref is back with us and AKIRA BITES KOJI'S KNEE to break an anklelock. Not long after, the big AKIRA splash that has been teased twice hits for a huge nearfall. AKIRA then turns the tables with an ankle lock on Koji. Koji has to dig deep and pulls out the double ankle lock to put away a very game AKIRA. I loved some of the selling in this (Koji selling his face) and the late leg stuff was really, really well done. I'd put this just above the Hashi match that Kanemoto had due to what seemed like some tension between these two in both of their matches I have seen.

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IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Koji Kanemoto vs AKIRA - NJPW 03/23/03

Watch the first ten minutes and you won't understand why it is nominated, but the last 8 minutes are fantastic. So many 00s Japanese matches start off great and but misfire on the finish. Give me a tepid, aimless start with a hot finish over the inverse any day of the week. They jockey for position early with Kanemoto using knees to head and kicks to establish himself early. AKIRA uses dropkicks as cutoffs is able to hit a big dive to the outside, but belly flops on his top rope splash. OUCH! Kanemoto avoids it again, but this time AKIRA just comes down. It really puts over the Splash. The match picks up once AKIRA calls for the STF. HEY! Bryan Danielson, ringside, pretty cool! Kanemoto sells the STF really well with good vocal selling, but kinda ruins it with a quick kip up so AKIRA blasts his knee with a dropkick. Kanemoto takes a knee for a knee with a heel hook that has AKIRA clawing at the ref to avoid submission, which he does, but ref doesnt see it. AKIRA suplexes Kanemoto, the selling is a bit uneven here. Kanemoto back to the heel hook and AKIRA bites Kanemoto's knee, now that's badass. Kanemoto stays on him with kicks to knee and goes for the kill with a moonsault, but his knees come down on AKIRA's knee. O CALAMITY! AKIRA comes up the better with a Big Splash, but no 3 count love. So he flips Kanemoto over and a Big Splash to the knees and right into the ankle lock while smashing knee into the mat, great stuff. Kanemoto makes the ropes and a kick combo has them both laying. Kanemoto applies a cool figure-4 on the knee to secure the victory. The last 8 minutes make it worth with it given the great knee selling, but with so much disjointed selling I don't have this in the top tier. Kanemoto also gives a kind of flat performance with his heel hook calling card being the only thing that adds heat while AKIRA's splash and his selling of the heel hook (grabbing ref and biting knee) and his work on Kanemoto's knee are the real highlights of the match. The best AKIRA match in my opinion is the 2001 Minoru Tanaka match, but this is still worth a watch. ***1/2

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This is probably one of the two or three best New Japan junior matches and probably the best IWGP junior title match of this decade. I never had a problem with the scale of this match because I was pretty into every little thing they do in this match. The selling and legwork are all really clever and AKIRA biting Kanemoto's leg is the best highspot of the match. It's still probably not a high ranking match but I could see it sneaking it's way onto the top half of my ballot.

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I used to be a huge mark for Kanemoto when I first got into New Japan. But, watching this after so many years, I have to roll my eyes at the taste of my younger self.  It has things that I really do like, like Koji needing to change up the ankle lock for the finish, his selling when AKIRA does the Musasabi to his legs, and the bit where he does the senton, but instead of getting a heatless near fall, he drops punches on AKIRA instead. I also liked that Koji's first ankle lock, game from the ground, since he was still hurt from AKIRA's STF. Even the stiffing each other early on worked, in the vein of showing their disdain for each other, before they moved onto working each other's leg.

 

But, Koji's no-selling is so frustrating! There's the kip-up after the blockbuster, and even the finishing stretch has Kanemoto throwing out spin kicks and jumping knees, on a supposedly bad wheel, before he gets the last ankle lock.

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I rewatched this and AKIRA really brought a lot of intensity from the start.  I imagine he hadn't forgotten the earlier humiliation Kanemoto had put him through.  I also enjoyed Koji resorting to punches after the senton, nice change-up to show he was starting to feel the need to up the intensity as well.  The last 6-8 minutes really does hold up, with Koji's unfortunate no-selling still dragging it down a bit.  It ends up being the small things (AKIRA's desperation counters, etc.) that make me love it more than the big no-selling bits make me hate it.

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