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Second half of 1994.

Nikolai Zouev vs Mitsuya Nagai (RINGS, 8/28/94)

This was the Nikolai Zouev that I was missing during the first half of 1994 and easily his best match of the year. There is plenty of great struggle on the mat with Nagau playing the scrappy little shit trying to spoil all of Zouev's submission attempts. When Zouev tries to grab a double wristlock, Nagai immediately floats out of it and to the ropes. When Zouev fights for the cross armbar, using his foot to break it open, Nagai's foot is on the rope like a reflex. he blocks a lot of Zouev’s takedowns but Zouev will still manage to grab a hold. Things get a heated with the smacks and knees, and in the end, Zouev gets the submission win in his home country.

Grom Zaza vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (RINGS, 10/22/94)

Hot start with the strikes and Grom having to fight a fiesty Yamamoto off before he's able to start building some momentum. Yamamoto brought the kicks but Grom also lets loose with the open hand slaps. I thought Yamamoto did a terrific job of selling in this match, which doesn't happen all that often in RINGS -- between milking the ten counts and submission breaks, to dragging the leg there at the end. Cool finish with Grom using a sweet leg-whip takedown but getting snagged in Yamamoto's rear naked choke. Grom's second best performance of the year behind the Todorov match, and another feather in Yamamoto's 1994 cap. 

Volk Han vs. Andrei Kopylov (RINGS, 10/22/94)

Really good brutal match-up and definitely the best Kopylov has looked in 1994 behind the Yamamoto match. It's nice to see Han returning to aggressive form and he just lays into Kopylov throughout the match. Kopylov's strategy throughout is to get Han off of him as quickly as possible, whether that's a slam or a throw or countering Han's own elaborate attempt. Kopylov's selling of the arm is subtle but nice as they go after each other's arms with holds. Loved Han's standing armbar>armbreaker. At some point, Han gets bloodied with a shot and gets pissed off. Neat finish with Han using a cool wristlocktakedown into the armbar and Kopylov's resiliency awarding him the upset victory. 

Mitsuya Nagai vs. Dimitri Petkov (RINGS, 11/19/94)

Petkov would have been great in UWFi against guys like Vader and Albright. Just a big fat baby who throws people around and sits on them with single leg crabs and gets his knee sprayed down when Nagai kicks it too hard. This is the same narrative as their first match but they have really good chemistry together and it's unlike most things in RINGS. I love how vocal Petkov's body punches are and how he absorbs Nagai's strikes to get close enough to suplex him. Nagai once again targets the leg throughout and ends up submitting Petkov after a very well-executed rolling kneebar. Good match.  

Mitsuya Nagai vs. Masayuki Naruse (RINGS, 12/16/94)

Really good match-up between two similar dudes. Nagai is the better striker while Naruse has a little more finesse on the mat. Loved the opening with Nagai striking hard and then hanging onto the front neck lock when Naruse tries to roll him off before it settles into an evenly contested match. Nagai will get the knockdown and Naruse will send him to the ropes. Things escalate from the ground with Nagai being particularly stiff with his shots. Naruse's struggling to find anything and finally lands a big spinning heel kick in the corner but when he tries to take him down with a judo toss, Nagai catches him with a sleeper for the win. Awesome finish.

Akira Maeda vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (RINGS, 12/16/94)

Terrific match. The best "big boss" Maeda match since he returned from injury, and Yamamoto at his fieriest. Right out of the gate, he's rocking Maeda with big nasty open hands while Maeda struggles to find a takedown. That's one of his only defenses against Yamamoto (he's kind of like the wise tortoise in this match) but even when he's able to grab a submission, Yamamoto finds ways out or reverses the holds. The crowd is loving Yamamoto taking it to Maeda but when Maeda's able to fire back with some big shots of his own, he lays into Yamamoto and quite often, chaos ensues -- which rules. Loved Maeda's surprise palm thrust to Yamamoto's face and Yamamoto losing it and taking Maeda down with a stiff combo. Once Maeda has established that he's going to submit him, Yamamoto sticks to striking and doesn't let up, even at his final down. The crowd doesn't like turtle-mode Maeda but in the end, he's able to snag the leglock for the submission. Probably the best RINGS match of '94, although Han/Nagai later in the month might take that honor. 

Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Daisuke Ikeda (RINGS, 12/24/94)

A solid squash as Kohsaka dominates Ikeda, battering him around with strikes and smothering him on the ground. Ikeda's able to withstand a lot of TK's hard shots and the way they throw palm thrusts like punches is awesome. It seems to be me that Ikeda wasn’t quite used to working this style – granted, he was in PWFG but that wasn’t quite worked the same way so he gets really exhausted here. There’s this great struggle on the mat with TK trying to grab the armbar and Ikeda fighting around it but the finish was pretty lame with Ikeda sort of falling into TK's submission. 

Volk Han vs. Mitsuya Nagai (RINGS, 12/14/94)

The best of their series and no doubt one of my all-time favorite RINGS matches thus far. There's so much to love about this match. Both guys play their respective roles so well, with Nagai being the pesky shithead underdog and Han the leggy takedown submission artist. Tons of cool shit from Han on the ground and that hammerlock suplex. I loved him using the triangle as a means to stop Nagai's barrage of knees and kicks. The fans love it when Han's getting rocked with kicks or Nagai's mocking him, and when Nagai briefly gets him in the STF, they collectively lose their shit. But Han keeps throwing him off and taking him to the ropes with submissions. One of my favorite moments in the match comes when Han has him in an armbar and he uses his own legs to block Nagai from being to flip out of it, and then he traps the leg to prevent any escape. Just smart wrestling. At one point, Han drags him into the middle of the ring just to apply a hold. He's always using his feet to break up Nagai's holds. Nagai does get to show off on the mat as well and has some good  attempts of his own, like the rolling kneebar. I loved Nagai's struggle to pry open the armbar and when it finally gets it, Han touches the ropes to break it. Tons of excellent struggle on the ground, an incredible pace and a great finish, with Nagai's frustration at its peak when he's just pummeling Han with body shots before Han finishes him off via submission. Chef's kiss. 

Akira Maeda vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (RINGS, 12/24/94)

Not nearly as good as their 12/16 match but still one of Maeda's best performances of 1994. Maeda doesn't let Yamamoto get away with nearly as much offense here, and shows off his more aggressive side, immediately backing him into a corner, striking him down, and then slapping on a nasty side headlock. Yamamoto's still able to force Maeda to dance in submission holds and drops him with slaps and knees. When Maeda comes at him hard with kicks, Yamamoto's able to catch one and drop down into a leglock. Once more, the match builds to Yamamoto's final down and again, he tries downing Maeda with knees, and once again, Maeda uses his turtle defense and snags him with the leglock for the win.

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Mitsuya Nagai v Masayuki Naruse (1/23/93)

Hey, this was a really nice, spirited little contest. The stand-up was sharp and clean and I dug Naruse playing underdog. He sold getting knocked around pretty well and I loved how he used the ref' to drag himself back to his feet after the penultimate knockdown. Nagai hurled a few mean leg kicks but still wasn't the full crowbar Nagai that I'm used to, as it was crowbar Nagai that was my first introduction to Nagai way back whenever. They sure telegraphed Naruse catching that high kick, but to their credit they threw a curve ball and switched up the finish nicely. Not spectacular by any means, but definitely fun and a super breezy nine minutes.

Sotir Gotchev v Todor Todorov (1/23/93)

Kind of a poor man's Eastern European grapplefest, but a fun one and with another few fights under his belt Todorov could be really good (I'm sure I've seen later Todorov fights, but I don't remember anything about them). Gotchev had a bunch of nice throws again, almost setting them up via bearhug before heaving Todorov over and practically onto his head. At one point he hoisted him up, walked around the ring and hit a body slam. I'm not sure what Todorov's discipline is, but he had a killer harai goshi and once or twice he almost tied Gotchev up in suitably RINGS fashion. Finish was really cool too. There's something about a shoot style STF that's just aesthetically pleasing.

Yoshihisa Yamamoto v Yoshinori Nishi (1/23/93)

This was about twelve minutes but it seemed longer than that, and not in a good way. Again it felt like more of an early look at what Yamamoto would become, though maybe that's just me projecting because he's a favourite of mine and what he becomes is fucking awesome. Either way he got a wee bit chippy once or twice and flung an elbow that Nishi didn't appreciate. Nishi still isn't very good on the ground, but I guess he has a somewhat passable takedown defence and so Yamamoto wasn't taking him down at will. But a lot of this went by without much happening.

Volk Han v Andrei Ruminezei (1/23/93)

I'm pretty sure this is my first time seeing Ruminezei. He's sort of unassuming and looks a bit like John Carroll Lynch with the perfectly balding pate and such. And he was pretty dang fun! His striking is really tentative and once or twice he looks a wee bit lost to the point where Han is trying to guide him, but he has fun takedowns and brings something to the ground exchanges. Han is worth watching against absolutely anybody already, just a little over a year into his career, and this time he was getting tricky with the strikes. He was throwing ax kicks and quick hands and of course his favourite spinning back fist. It came after Ruminezei caught him with a knee to the gut for a knockdown, going straight to the back fist and following it up with an amazing wrist throw into an armbar. This was longer than the previous bout but it sort of flew by in comparison.

Akira Maeda v Herman Renting (1/23/93)

To suggest Herman Renting is hit or miss would probably be generous. He's about eight parts miss to two parts hit. If he's not in the mood then it's usually hard to care about what he's doing. And this wasn't a barn burner or anything, but he was at least pressing the issue a little and I guess it was a watchable enough bout. Maeda obviously has the aura, but I'm wondering if his knee wasn't still giving him legit problems around this point because he hasn't really been up for doing much in the last couple shows. The fact it's heavily taped up means there's always a bit of drama, though. Renting took a few swings at it and the crowd reacted like it was a big deal, so maybe we're not giving Maeda enough credit for his minimalist booking (or maybe I'm full of total horse shit). Skippable fight in all, but on the Renting curve it was better than his average.

Dick Vrij v Chris Dolman (1/23/93)

This was never going to be a victim of expectations. I like Vrij a lot and everything, but Dolman is getting on in years and he was never great to begin with and Vrij isn't the sort of guy who drags mediocre to really good. But hey, they upped their game like you and I and anyone with a shred of honour would for the Mega Battle Tournament Grand Final and it wound up being a pretty fun scrap. Vrij is usually much bigger than his opponents, or at least has a reach advantage, and while Dolman can't match up to him in the striking he's not giving up anything in height and could probably use his extra weight to contain him. It means Vrij wants to be aggressive and finish it on the feet while Dolman would rather grind it out on the mat. Dolman isn't expressive at all and sometimes comes off a touch sandbaggy, but if nothing else it made Vrij's first big knockdown feel well-earned and special (and Vrij's reaction to it did as well). I don't know how much Dolman has left in his legs so I guess this was a nice last hurrah.

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Alright, it's been a minute but here's the first half of 1995.

Masayuki Naruse vs. Sotir Gotchev (RINGS, 1/25/95)

Sotir Gotchev looks like a wise ass 1980's Brooklyn TV cop but he's pretty dope in the ring and he and Naruse got plenty of time to do their thang (which may be too much time, I don't know). One of Gotchev's best spots is when he's got someone in a bear hug and they're trying to palm strike their way out of it and Gotchev belly-to-belly suplexes them. Good struggle on the mat, with Naruse able to show off a bit more on the ground with his control and transitions. Gotchev keeps suplexing, Naruse keeps on taking him down, and then things get a little more feisty toward the end with the open hands and kicks. Naruse knocks Gotchev down with a big slap but when he tries for the spinning heel kick, Gotchev avoids it and taps him with his version of the STF. 

Akira Maeda vs. Volk Han (RINGS, 1/25/95)

This match rules, are you kidding me? Maeda made his "return" to greatness in 1994 against Yoshihisa Yamamoto and he's still got it. They go at it to open, chasing each other with strikes, and then Han takes Maeda to the ground and gets him in a dope inverted STF...I don't even know with Han and his crazy holds. Maeda's nose gets busted less than a minute into the match and he's just trying to survive Han's submissions and strike him down. Awesome moment where Han has him in a standing leglock and kicks Maeda's arm away in order to get the single leg crab. Good back-and-forth on the mat with tons of reversals. Maeda's able to get a few kicks in on Han but Han knows Maeda's leg is injured and like a shark to blood, Han is all about getting that leg. In the end, he traps it and then Maeda's arm, and Maeda finally taps to give Han the Mega Battle Tournament! 

Mitsuya Nagai vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (RINGS, 3/18/95)

Yamamoto is blessed in white, the pre-Tamura savior of RINGS, and Nagai is still scrappy as hell. He isn't as strong on the mat as Yamamoto but he can outstrike him and that's what he tries to do, connecting with a nice high kick before Yamamoto takes him down. When they both let loose with the strikes, the match really heats up and Nagai has tons of quick hands, kicks, and knees, really swinging for the fences at times, but Yamamoto's still able to knock him down with his own shots. At one point, Nagai falls on his ass but it's okay because he then proceeds to go apeshit on Yamamoto in the corner. They're wailing away on each other but Yamamoto wins out, as Nagai hangs on the ropes and is barely able to make it back to his feet. Yamamoto tries to finish him off with the choke but Nagai is able to grab an arm and cinch in the submission for the big win. Great match. 

Volk Han vs. Nikolai Zouev (RINGS, 3/18/95)

Zouev is maybe my second favorite Russian? Maybe Kopylov - maybe they can share that honor because Volk Han is god-like. Whereas Koyplov is a little more rough and tumble, Zouev is finesse and he will always try to outmaneuver Han, which of course, leads to a great war on the mat...but also on their feet, as they both throw hard open hands.  The back-and-forth between these two is top notch, and Zouev ends up taking Han to the ropes more often than he's used to. Han also sends Zouev scrambling but also is super aggressive with his strikes and lands some really nasty shots. They fight for control on the ground up until the very end, when Han finally grabs the armbar for the submission. Real good stuff. 

Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Wataru Sakata (RINGS, 4/28/95)

Baby Kohsaka and baby Sakata, the latter of which, isn't very good at this point in his career, much to the disappointment of Maeda, go at it. This was pretty fun - good heated smack exchanges but TK is the man on the mat, mostly keeping Sakata in CHECK. Grabbing necklocks and kneebars when Sakata fails to do much of anything on the mat. They slap each other silly for a bit and then TK lands a big knee strike, pummels Sakata with open hands and taps him with the armbar. 

Mitsuya Nagai vs. Willie Peeters (RINGS, 4/28/95)

Easily the best Willie Peeters match since 1991. It helps that both guys are feisty little shitheads and as expected, they throw a lot of hard kicks and knees. Peeters hits an awesome rotating belly-to-belly and stays aggressive throughout, but still does shitty things like hanging onto the ropes. And it wouldn't be a Willie Peeters match if he didn't fall on his ass on a big spin kick attempt. Nagai isn't always the strongest on the mat but he's better than Peeters and had some neat counters. In the end, Peeters creams Nagai with a high kick to the head but it's not enough and Nagai traps him int he front necklock for the submission.

Volk Han vs. Masayuki Naruse (RINGS, 4/28/95)

Is this the best Masayuki Naruse match ever? Certainly in RINGS up to this point but it's also against Volk Han, which means the bar is already set high. love that Han is now busting out these rolling armbar suplexes - like he goes for his standing armbar and then suplexes Naruse. He drags him back to the middle and tries for his standing leglock but Naruse counters with a kneebar like "nuh-uh-uh". I like that Naruse establishes that the kneebar is THE counter for Volk Han throughout the match. He also puts Han in a nasty facelock hold. But when he tries for a high kick, Han catches it and takes him down with the leglock. Han is the master at this - at one point, he's got Naruse in a hammerlock, Naruse tries to counter with a leg trip but Han holds on to the arm and takes him to the ropes. Good dynamic, good struggle on the mat, with Naruse looking his best yet. He pops Han with some big slaps and kicks but the veteran perseveres, keeps using the hammerlock>double wristlock combo to control Naruse. Naruse's able to take him down with the Fujiwara armbar but Han traps him with the headscissors and snags the leg for the awesome submission. Great match!

Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Sotir Gotchev (RINGS, 5/20/95)

TK's best match since debuting and a real showcase match for Gotchev, who works a very aggressive approach here with his kicks, hands, and knees. Early on, he blasts TK with a high kick to the face. TK tries to answer with knee strikes but when he can't get the knockdown, he takes Gotchev down in a slick rolling leglock. Of course, Gotchev hits his signature bearhug belly-to-belly suplex in all its glory. Loved him playing to the crowd like a putz when he downs TK with a knee. They struggle a bit at the end, both clearly tired, but Gotchev wins after he uses a full nelson with the knees into a judo throw to set up his shoot STF. Cool match. 

Mitsuya Nagai vs. Andrei Kopilov (RINGS, 5/20/95)

Mitsuya Nagai in 1995 is $100 dollar bills (but he was also good in 1994 and in general) and as proven in the past, Andrei Kopilov is no slouch - although, he does look like the dad on your favorite 90's Russian sitcom. Kopylov's dominant throughout the match. He immediately suplexes the hell out of Nagai and he does such a good job of making his holds look painful, whether it's grabbing arms or legs. Other memorable moments include Nagai getting kneed in the nuts, Kopilov teasing throwing him out of the ring TWICE, Nagai catching Kopilov's koppou kick attempt and dropping down with the leglock, and a dope headlock suplex. Kopilov is a tough fucker, taking a head kick but still holding onto Nagai, and I loved his headlock takedown into the front mount. He keeps taking Nagai to the ropes and the fans WANT Nagai to fire back and he does and the fans love it - big kicks and big knees down Kopylov in the corner and he can't make it back up to his feet.

Akira Maeda vs. Nikolai Zouev (RINGS, 5/20/95)

A pretty good Maeda-dominant match with Zouev trying to take him out on the ground and Maeda winning out. Some nice takedowns, strike exchanges, and matwork. The way Maeda kicks out Zouev's leg with the solebutt was gnarly and I love his headscissors hold. Zouev is able to survive the world famous Maeda leglock but ends up tapping to a sleeper hold.

Wataru Sakata vs. Yuri Bekichev (RINGS, 6/17/95)

This is the Will Ospreay vs. Ricochet match of RINGS thus far, in the sense that they're both trying to do big impressive things, synchronized kicks and shit, completely whiffin g a bunch, and it's so silly, it's actually fun. Not a very good match though. It was nice seing Sakata with a little more confidence and aggression, laying in with a bunch of open hands to the head and knee strikes. Yuri loves the big kicks and he hits a pretty sweet shoot enziguri, a spinning heel wkick, a high kick to the head. There's a bunch of tomfoolery with them trying these ridiculo us kicks and throwing themselves at each other without anything really happening, which leads to the Yuri's knees vs. Wataru's slaps and Yuri's knees win out. Dumb fun.

Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Sergei Sousserov (RINGS, 6/17/95)

Pretty good Sousserov showcase match with a bunch of cool throws and kicks, and TK trying to survive, grabbing submissions off of suplexes when he can. He's able to down Sergei with a good knee to the midsection but Sergei pops him silly with a big ass kick and submits him with the armbar. 

Volk Han vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (RINGS, 6/17/95)

Yoshihisa Yamamoto has become very good at this point, and he knows how to play to the crowd, milk every submission, and give the top dogs a run for their money. As good as Han is here, and in general, Yamamoto has a lot of answers. The whole opening stretch, with Yamamoto flipping out of the standing armbar, reversing the cross heel hook, slipping out of Han's fingers into a sleeper hold - he ain't no punkass kid with acne anymore. As expected, tons of rolling around, trading holds and counters, but Yamamoto sending Han to the ropes a bunch. He's dominant on top with his strikes. I love that the ref gets onto Yamamoto for tyring to hammer his way out of Han's heel hook. He tries to get fancy with a cool sliding leg sweep but gets caught in Han's kneebar. Also the incorporation of the hammerlock suplex into Han's arsenal -- perfecto. When Yamamoto pops Han with a palm strike, Han falls like a tree. The fans lose it when he's got Han in the front necklock, somehow managing to allude the armbar but once Volk gets out, he traps Yamamoto and snags the arm for the submission finish. Awesome match.


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And the second half of '95!

Masayuki Naruse vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (RINGS, 7/18/95)

This does not end pretty for TK. Naruse is the aggressor and TK is once again trying to survive and grab a submission. Naruse downs him with a nice flurry of palms and knees, then wrenches him with a FACELOCK. That's how you apply it. TK, on the otherhand, is able to grab a pretty dope kneebar on Naruse and the fans think he may have it in the bag but no, he doesn't. They dance around holds but TK can't get the leglock and that's about his last opportunity because Naruse knees the shit out of him, destroying his eyebrow. TK's up, he wants to fight, but the ref knows better and calls the match. Fun!

Dick Leon-Vrij vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (RINGS, 7/18/95)

Yamamoto takes an absolute thrashing from Dick Fly but so he's damn persistent with those double leg takedowns and Vrij, of course, is always within a foot of the ropes so Yamamoto has 7% chance of actually submitting him. But boy oh boy, Vrij destroys Yamamoto with the knees and palm strikes. When Yamamoto's down, Vrij kills him with a knee to the head and the ref admonishes Vrij while Hans Nijman is up on the apron, trying to get the ref to call Yamamoto down. Vrij keeps attacking Yamamoto until Yamamoto stuns him with a shotei and then peppers him in the corner with open hands. But that only pisses Vrij off, who comes at him twice as hard, and again, Yamamoto pummels Vrij in the corner with open hands. Vrij is actually bleeding now and he's used up all his rope escapes - Yamamoto can do it! Once again, Vrij big ass knees Yamamoto when he's down on the ground and the fans aren't happy about it but Yamamoto forces Vrij to the ropes and wins by TKO...so the fans leave happy. Brutal match. 

Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Dimitri Petkov (RINGS, 8/27/95)

Big Baby Petkov is back in a red singlet this time (not the neon green) and even though his matches feel the most 'worked', they're plenty fun and this was no exception. For as big as he is, Petkov can make some of these roll up submissions look great. TK gets him early on with the rolling necklock before Petkov belly-to-belly suplexes him in response. Tk gets in a lot of cool submission attempts and tries to take Petkov down with a barrage of strikes but Dimitri is able to grab him and...they kind of just fall down. Perfect opportunity for a Petkov suplex BLOWN. Petkov finally slams him down into the reverse necklock and TK taps. Didn't look very painful but whatever, TK experienced Dimitri Petkov. 

Akira Maeda vs. Andrei Kopilov (RINGS, 8/27/95)

Save for the finish, this was a solid Akira Maeda exhibition match. Kopilov (back in the purple Nike shorts, thanfully) doesn't get a whole lot off on Maeda. They're usually too close to the ropes so there's not a lot of drama behind the holds. And anytime Kopilov tries to retaliate with strikes, Maeda ducks down into turtle defense mode, forcing Kopilov to try something on the mat. But Maeda looked good here. He gets a sick double arm takedown, spiking Kopilov on his head, and lays into him a bunch with kicks and knees and slaps. As witnessed before, these two like to entangle. Kopilov whiffs on his spinning heel kick (the worst shoot-style move because it has a 6% chance of connecting [see Masahito Kakihara] and can't catch a break on the ground because of the damn ropes. But when Maeda takes him down with the half hatch, Kopilov is able to roll him into a kneebar for the UPSET TAPOUT! 

Volk Han vs. Bitsadze Tariel (RINGS, 8/27/95)

Tariel's best match in RINGS up to this point? Probably but I also think that applies to a lot of guys who wrestled Han. The dynamic between these two, similar to Han's matches against Vrij, is great. Tariel is the big Georgian karateka wall and Han is trying to exploit the crack with tons of dope submission holds. Early on, he gets a beautiful leg trip into the trapped heel hook, and then he drags Tariel back to the middle of the ring. Han establishes that he's the man on the ground, attacking Tariel's leg with hooks and holds, but then Tariel whaps the shit out of Volk's leg with a kick and floors him. Striker established. He then proceeds to pummel Han with blows, knocking him down again and again, and poor Han tries to retaliate with the spinning backhand but Tariel gutshots him. Being that the gutshot is Han's kryptonite, he cannot make it to his feet and Tariel wins. A night of upsets in RINGS. 

Wataru Sakata vs. Sotir Gotchev (RINGS, 9/22/95)

Sotir Gotchev is already near and dear to my heart but he immediately gets flattened with a spinning backhand. But that doesn't stop him from hitting his bearhug suplex and locking in his shoot TF. When Gotchev tries for the very rare RINGS German suplex, Sakata's able to roll him up with a leglock, into a heel hook, into his own shoot STF. Pretty cool SAKATA. Gotchev's kicks are big and bold, and as Sakata comes for him, he shows that his knee is just as big and bold. Sakata's spinning heel kick just graves Gotchev's cheekbone and he tries to take Sotir down with bodyshots and knees but Gotchev takes him down and finally submits him with his wacky STF. Fun opener

Dick Leon-Vrij vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (RINGS, 9/22/95)

Although the rematch sees Yamamoto wrangle more with Dick Fly on the mat, it lacked the drama and intensity of their first match. That being said, it was still a lot of fun, and Yamamoto, in savior white, promptly takes it the fuck to Vrij in the corner. Vrij's strikes aren't quite as brutal here, and at one point, after Yamamoto slaps him in the face, Vrij asks for more...and more he receives. He does knock Yamamoto out of the ring with a series of kicks and knees but in the end, taps out to a rear naked choke, giving Yamamoto another victory. Uh oh, Dick. 

Akira Maeda vs. Volk Han (RINGS, 9/22/95)

Not as good as their match earlier in the year but it's Maeda vs. Han so it's lowest threshold is still pretty high. It's a little sloppy in parts, which isn't something you see often in Han's performance. He starts off with the double wristlock and Maeda is struggling...well, kind of...as Han keeps him away from the ropes but Maeda obviously isn't tapping so Han tries to switch it up, whcih gives Maeda an opening to escape. Again, Maeda shows off some sweet suplex takedowns and he manages a few good strikes. At one point, Han knees Maeda in the face twice and Maeda's like "fuck it" and gets right back up to his feet. Of course. When Han tries for a roll up kneebar, Maeda traps the leg in a scissors hold and Han taps out!  

Nikolai Zouev vs. Mikhail Ilioukhine (RINGS, 10/21/95)

Not a great show on a whole but this was a pretty fun match and definitely Mikhail's best singles match thus far in RINGS. As to be expected with Zouev, there is a lot of ground entanglements, blocks, reversals, and fancy maneuvering. There's a cool roll through heel hook by Mikhail but Zouev is able to snag the arm. Zouev also has a neat grounded single leg and Mikhail does a croos heel hold, which looks like a double single leg hold. Much of the focus is on the arm and the struggle for control but in the end, Mikhail performs a roll through into the neck crank for the submission. Cool finish to a pretty neat match-up.

Andrei Kopilov vs. Grom Zaza (RINGS, 10/21/95)

Grom Zaza is feisty in this match and it rules. I loved his fakeout slaps, his body blows, the knees. I mean, he's swinging for the fences with some of those open hands and at one point, Andrei's like "what the heck? come on, ref". There's also a funny moment where Kopilov's spinning heel kick completely misses and Zaza's like "what do I do?". Kopilov connects with a spinning backhand and he tries to get feisty with Zaza and then Zaza gets hassled by the ref for the excessive knee strikes. Kopilov isn't able to do much on the mat because Zaza won't let up. He manages a nice roll through with the arm but Zaza's right in the ropes. Grom gets kicked in the nuts and now he's pissed, smacking Kopilov down and putting him in the rear naked choke. By the end, they're both tired,  mostly Grom though, as he unloads on Kopilov in the corner with more big strikes but is about to collapse. So Kopilov quickly taps him with a fancy cradle hold? I don't know. Cool match though and probably the best on an otherwise weak show.

Yoshihisa Yamamoto vs. Mitsuya Nagai (RINGS, 11/16/95)

These two work well together, with Nagai being the more strike-heavy of the two and Yamamoto trying for the takedown>submission. Yamamoto opens with a lot of fire, stunning Nagai with palm strikes and sending him to the ropes with a kneebar. Nagai, of course, loves the kicks and the knees. He's able to turn Yamamoto's necklock attempt into a dope legtrap straight armbar, and when Yamamoto tries to roll out, Nagai keeps him in check with the wakigatame. Loved Yamamoto's selling when Nagai has got him up against the ropes with strikes. Nagai's able to get Yamamoto in an interesting predicament, snatching the arm, but Yamamoto is able to move to the ropes and in the end, taps Nagai with the leglock to advance. Great little match. 

Volk Han vs. Andrei Kopilov (RINGS, 11/16/95)

Tons of matwork, as one might expect, with tons of counters and maneuvering and Kopilov really trying to catch Han in something inescapable. The opening few minutes are really good, with Han using the armbar takedown right off the bat, Kopilov turning it into an ankle hold/calf hold, Han countering with the leglock and then using an awesome reverse armbar counter with the opposite arm trapped. When Andrei gets Han in the armbar, there's a great little moment where Han is just short of his foot on the ropes and the crowd is buzzing (Kopylov responds with the Russian equivalent of "fuck!" when Han does get it). Once again, Han utilizes his legs better than anyone else and when he's on his feet, he isn't afraid to fire off knees and shoteis and spinning backhands. By the end, they're both just grabbing limbs,  hoping for a submission, and when Kopilov gets the armbar takedown, Han bites with the heel hook and Kopilov taps. Good stuff. 

Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Grom Zaza (RINGS, 12/19/95)

The most exciting match on the show, in my opinion, with terrific pacing and both guys giving 100%. Grom has gone from mild-mannered Georgian with a pleasant smile to an uber-aggre ssive slappy Georgian with the same pleasant smile. He opens with a hard slaps, a beautiful wristlock takedown and some big knees to the head to down TK. TK's able to retaliate with a nice armwhip of his own into the neck crank and a few knees to Grom's dome. When Zaza grabs the ankle, TK tries and misses with an enziguri attempt and so Zaza puts him in a seated single leg crab hold. There's a bunch of takedowns>holds toward the end, more stiff strikes from Zaza, and a dope finish, which consists of a beautiful armwhip by Grom into the reverse armbar for the submission victory. The post-match kip up by Grom is the cherry on the cake.

Mitsuya Nagai vs. Nikolai Zouev (RINGS, 12/19/95)

It's Nikolai Zouev, which means a lot of rolling around, trapping arms and legs with arms and legs. That's, of course, not a bad thing and Nagai is fun in that he's trying to counter and do his own thing, and while he's not the strongest on the mat, he looks pretty good here. Zouev usually has answers to Nagai's kick attempts but not always, and he nearly gets knocked out of the ring by a series of kicks and knees in the corner. There's an awesome moment in the match where Nagai tries for a big kick, Zouev slides underneath to sweep the leg and transitions seemlessly into the rear choke. Zouev has some great holds, sometimes pretzeling Nagai in various ways, but Nagai will also find ways to put Zouev in predicaments. He fights for an armbar, which Zouev tries to bridge his way out of before finding an escape and reversal with an armbar of his own. They kind of slap it out at the end and Nagai snags a front necklock, holding on when Zouev takes him down to force the tap out. Good stuff. 

Volk Han vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (RINGS, 12/19/95)

A solid rematch with Yamamoto really trying to get the advantage and Han being patient and slick as usual. Yamamoto almost seems desperate/reckless at times, which gives this match kind of a sloppy sheen, but it's still Volk Han and he gets some of his offense in while still allowing Yamamoto to get the spotlight...kind of. At one point, Yamamoto comes at Han with open hands and Han just tosses him like a sack of flour. Yamamoto is able to get him in a triangle but once again, Han coolly steps on the leg and puts him in the straight leglock. Han knocks him down with a flurry of slaps, they flip-flop single leg crab holds, and then Yamamoto snags the armbar. When Han tries to get out, turning over onto his belly, Yamamoto holds on and taps him with the reverse armbar. Big win for Yamamoto. although nowhere near his best showing, and a good Han performance as always. 

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Here we go - the best of RINGS '96! 

Akira Maeda vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (RINGS, 1/24/96)

Probably Maeda's last good match. Nowhere near the level of the 12/16/94 match but still a lot of fun, with Yamamoto being the aggressor and Maeda going after the leg with less and less energy as the match progresses. Yamamoto earns himself a yellow card when he went for a kick or knee to the grounded Maeda. While Yamamoto's able to escape Maeda's submission attempts, by the end of it, he's shot and Maeda just has to hold on long enough for the submission. Some nasty hands from Yamamoto to down Maeda but he couldn't quite finish him off on the mat. Good stuff.

Mitsuya Nagai vs. Mikhail Ilioukhine (RINGS, 3/25/96)

The crowd loves Nagai. I love Nagai. He's scrappy as fuck and he's able to survive and squeeze out submission attempts between the random heavy strikes. Mikhail is a good submission aggressor and gets a few neat attempts, like the early shoot STF or stepover armbar. But Nagai is just a pain in the ass with his leg kicks and palm thrusts. Low kicks, mid kicks, high kicks - Nagai doesn't let up but Mikhail keeps trying to slam and submit. The slams are mostly fails and while the submissions look good, Nagai is too pesky. I just wanted a Mikhail powerbomb, which I thought was happening for half a second...but then Nagai keeps popping him in the face with shoteis and finally busts his nose open for the KO. Best match of an otherwise underwhelming card.

Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (RINGS, 4/26/96)

At this point, Yamamoto is positioned as the successor to Maeda and TK has been working his way up the ranks. The frantic, back-and-forth scramble and struggle on the mat early on was excellent, and then Yamamoto takes the advantage in terms of successfully grabbing holds and forcing TK to react. Or, you know, slapping the shit out of him. TK turns this around with a beautiful takedown into the calf slicer and then he turns the pressure on Yamamoto with the holds and knee strikes. Good peppering of stand-up strikes throughout to supplement the solid groundwork. The final couple of minutes are sluggish but Yamamoto's able to use the double leg takedown into the heelhook to tap TK. Great match. 

Volk Han vs. Nikolai Zouev (RINGS, 4/26/96)

Love this match-up. Han continues his more aggressive approach, coming out of the gate with knees to Zouev. But when it comes to the submissions, it's largely a stalemate and the struggle for position throughout is exactly what you'd expect from two submission masters. Zouev is quick to grab the ropes whenever Han snaps something off, and vice versa. At one point, Zouev turns up the heat and you don't see Han scramble often but he does here. Zoeuv's shoot snap suplex was cool and his leg scissors into the kneebar was a thing of beauty. Of course, Han pulls out the leg extension leglock, the single leg>STF>sleeper combo, the general octopus defense and offense. In the end, Zouev is able to block the hammerlock takedown and turn Han's attempt into a modified wakigatame for the big tap out. Great stuff as usual from these two. 

Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Mikhail Ilioukhine (RINGS, 5/25/96)

Mikhail is wilding out with the kicks and airplane spins and single leg crabs and big open hand slaps, and the Russian crowd is loving every minute of it. He throws TK with a belly-to-belly into a neck crank and TK is trying to get something going, throwing knees, grabbing holds, but Mikhail blows right through them. At one point, he's clearly just showing off, trying to deadlift TK off the mat. Mikhail pummels TK with palm strikes for a knockdown but TK is quick to pop up and drops Mikhail with a pretty sick uranage. Good back-and-forth struggle toward the end, although Mikhail stays aggressive throughout with the strikes and straight armbar attempts. But TK ends up tapping him with the rear choke. Good stuff. 

Masayuki Naruse vs. Todor Todorov (RINGS, 6/29/96)

The returning Naruse has got a hot crowd behind him and boy, do they both swing for the fences throughout this match-up. Tons of strikes, some great suplex takedowns, and good groundwork as Naruse tries to re-assert himself back in the landscape. Early on, Naruse snags the heel and doesn't let go as Todorov tries to squirm his way out of it and eventually has to roll over for a rope break. Some sweet takedowns, like the chickenwing from Todorov and the flying armbar from naruse. Todorov also delivers a pretty dope armtrap suplex. At one point, poor Todorov gets dick punched and then eats some nasty shoteis but he fires back with knees and kicks. But Naruse is relentless with his strikes and after Todorov seemingly expels his last energy with a semi-powerslam, Naruse takes him to the corner and pummels him until he gets the KO. Great stuff. 

Volk Han vs. Mitsuya Nagai (RINGS, 6/29/96)

While not at the level of their 1993 match, I enjoyed this more than the 1994 match. Nagai delivers yet another top-notch underdog performance and nearly has you (the viewer) convinced that he can beat Han at his own game...or via strikes, which he stuns Han with on a number of occasions. Han goes from his standing leglock to the single leg crab but Nagai counters with the heel hook, albeit briefly, before Han regains control and slaps on a neat cross heel hook. Loved him pulling Nagai down with the rear choke...only for Nagai to fight his way and send Han reeling after the ropes with a modified leglock. Han utilizing the full nelson hold with the legs for added leverage is another key Volk Han characteristic. Great armbar transition out of Nagai's rear waistlock and the finish was great, where you've got Nagai trying to transition his hold into something fancy and Han turning around, looking at him, grabbing the choke and tapping him. Enough playtime. Terrific match. 

Masayuki Naruse vs. Sergei Sousserov (RINGS, 7/16/96)

Sousserov is spin kicks and suplexes, which he quickly re-establishes within the first minute of this match. He comes off as this big Russian brute, strong right out of the gate, but as the match progresses, his offense usually falls apart with weak takedowns and plenty of whiffed spin kicks. It didn't necessarily happen here - although he whiffed earlier rather than later - and he gor some cool late game takedowns, including a dope German-style uranage. This definitely had more of the pro-wres feel to it, with Naruse playing the scrappy doo, hanging onto Sergei's neck with chokes as Sousserov continually tries to spin him off to no avail. At one point, Naruse hits a SHOOT DRAGON SCREW to set up the heel hook>single leg crab finish.

Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Willie Peeters (RINGS, 7/16/96)

This was Willie Peeters' best performance since 1992 (the '95 Nagai match was pretty good too) but basically, it's Peeters as his shitty best, throwing full rotation suplexes and being aggressive with the strikes. Tamura almost looks lost in there at times as he tries to get stuff going on the mat but Peeters is always near the ropes. Loved Willie's shit-eating grin when Tamura tells the referee to count him down on a missed kick attempt. Of coruse, Willie mocks Tamura's kicks and it becomes clear that Tamura really wants to submit him. Peeters wants none of ti, taps even after he manages an escape, and finally gives up the ghost to a triangle.

Volk Han vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (RINGS, 7/16/96)

Tons of compelling matwork, with each trying to pretzel the other and win out on the ground. But the strikes added something visceral to the match, especially that final catfight flurry from Han in the corner with the palm shots and knees that end up busting TK open and winning Han the match. We've already established that Han is a master of unique holds and transitions and reversals, as showcased in this match -- I mean, his hammerlocked necklock is so cool. But TK has answers for him and Han has to go to the ropes more times than he's usually used to. Neat rolling necklock from TK and toward the end, he keeps going back to the choke, since Han would turn any leg submission attempt against him. Great stuff. 

Masayuki Naruse vs. Egan Inoue (RINGS, 8/24/96)

The last thirty seconds of this match are worth the price of admission alone. Things are slow going initially, as they test the waters with kicks, which leads to some messy scrambling and some hesitancy on Inoue’s part,  having never worked a “worked” match before.  But after Egan takes a shot to the eye, he comes back into this match SUPER pissy and the chaos of the final strike exchanges is awesome. Tons of nasty knees and palm strikes, especially from Naruse, and then Egan gets himself disqualified by pounding a grounded Naruse with body shots. Fun stuff.

Volk Han vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (RINGS, 8/24/96)

Yup, this one ruled, right from the opening. TK's initial counter to Han's armwhip takedown was the chef's kiss and then Han is like, okay, let me fuck with the leg now, to which TK works his way into control and we're presented this great sequence of them vying for control. Beautiful counter submission wrestling and if that's your thing, welcome. Han is just so good at adapting to his opponent's movements and escape attempts. He'll snap off an armbar but if there is too much squirming, he'll shift his attention to the leg. Love TK's rolling necklock and there's a great moment where Han tries his "step on the foot" extension leglock but gets caught off guard with a heel hook. They pretzel each other with hold, twisting and twerking limbs to try and gain the advantage. Han dragging TK down with the choke was great but then, of course, TK turns the tables with the leglock and sends Han scrambling for the ropes. Beautiful arm takedown into the hammerlock by Volk and he does such a good job of preventing the escape…although it happens, barely. The end was great - Han with the little cat slaps and again another armlock takedown but when TK counters with the kneecrusher, Han is like "shit, I just need to grab the arm and bend it to win." And he does it. Awesome match.

Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Mitsuya Nagai (RINGS, 9/25/96)

Nagai was very aggressive throughout, battering TK with nasty head kicks and face palms and knee strikes in the corners. TK's trying to find a way to the mat, where he excels, and at one point, he usues a quasi-capture suplex but Nagai continues dominating up top, targeting TK's midsection and popping him in the head with more palsm and knees. TK manages a nice scissors takedown into the kneebar, a front necklock, and some slick maneuvering to set up the armbar, but Nagai manages to escape each attempt, finally kneeing TK for the KO. TK's poor gut couldn't take it anymore. 

Volk Han vs. Kiyoshi Tamura (RINGS, 9/25/96)

Incredible. The two of them slip slidin' in and out of submission attempts, the drama built around the escapes and counters, Han's usual attempts being thwarted by the younger, quicker Tamura. I mean, right out of the gate, you've got Han carrying Tamura around in a hammerlock before he throws him down and the scramble begins. Loved Han slipping under the kicks to grab the choke and drag Tamura down, only for Tamura to snag a heel hook to force the break. Han's armbar out of the knee crusher attempt was so slick but Tamura doesn't let it breath and fights his way into his own armbar. Tamura's straight kick to the gut ruled. By the end of it, they're both fairly exhausted and missing their executions, and Han seems fed up when he starts peppering Tamura with face palms and knees. Great finish too, with Tamura's last choke effort and Han extending the arm with the double wristlock for the win. What a match. 

Todor Todorov vs. Gogitidze Bakouri (RINGS, 10/25/96)

Bakouri rules. He throws Todorov with a great suplex early on and follows that up with a big Karelin lift. The ground stuff in this match is whatever but when they're throwing slaps and throws, it's a lot of fun. Poor Todor gets kneed in the nuts but Bakouri is sorry, it's all good. Todorov's gut punch > armbar takedown was pretty cool and rhe finish was neat, with Bakouri hitting a necklock suplex and holding on for the submission.

Volk Han vs. Masayuki Naruse (RINGS, 10/25/96)

One of Naruse's best RINGS performances thus far and another feather in Volk Han's ushanka. So many cool moments throughout. There's a really great counter-for-counter exchange in the first minute - loved when Naruse tries to set up the STF and Han says "nuh-huh" and grabs the arm. And then Naruse straight punches Han in the gut, which is, of course, Han's kryptonite. You've got Naruse's 2019-esque flipout of the armbar, which was unexpected, and then Han immediately throws him over his shoulder with a gnarly looking hip throw into the leglock. Han's inverted STF is always a thing of beauty and the hammerlock>hammerlock suplex>rear necklock. There's a great spot where Han has Naruse in an armbar and he's using his feet to keep Naruse from escaping. Naruse gets some neat offense in - I liked his gator roll and him blasting Han with the palm strike and rolling backhand. A fed up Han flipping him over the ropes was another great moment, which leads to the back-and-forth finish before Han traps him within inches from the ropes...and Naruse passes out. Terrific match.

Volk Han vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (RINGS, 11/22/96)

Much more aggressive than their previous match-up, with TK breaking out the nifty counters - the shoot-Exploder to escape the straight armbar and later the belly-to-back throw. Of course, they both pull off some impressive submissions - I liked TK's ankle hold and how he maintains it through Han's struggles. And Han's kneebar transition was a thing of a beauty, fluid like water. Also the small moments flesh this thing out, like Han punching the hands to try and break off the jujigatame, and TK's kryptonite gut punch. Han keeps going for the double wristlock but TK's able to escape each attempt, which leads to the final submission struggle and Han being able to get the extension on the arm for the tap out. Great stuff! 

Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (RINGS, 12/19/96)

Yamamoto has a major chip on his shoulder. He was the golden boy of RINGS pre-Tamura but post-Tamura, he's been losing all his matches, he's fed up and he takes that frustration out on Tamura. I mean, Tamura is just trying to survive and not get choked out. The opening is intense, with Yamamoto palm striking the hell out of Tamura, pelting him in the corners, with Tamura trying to grab something to take him down but Yamamoto is way too aggro. Tamura manages a few cool takedowns, including a beautiful kneebar counter, while Yamamoto keeps trying to climb on with his backpack choke. I thought some of the grounded sections of the match were sluggish - maybe they were just resting in between all the striking. At one point, Tamura rocks Yamamoto with some nasty slaps and somewhere in the mix, Tamura's nose gets busted open. The finish, with Tamura looking battering but then pulling out the  beautiful flying armbar with that extension for the immediate tap out. Chef's kiss. Very good stuff overall.  


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RINGS 1997

Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Mikhail Ilioukhine (RINGS, 1/22/97)

I know Han/Tamura steals the attention but this match rules. Ilioukhine does a good job of showing off his power, and comes out strong but TK's technique gives him the edge. There's a great kneebar counter that sends Mikhail to the ropes and he manages to escape a follow-up choke only to get caught in an armbar and sent back to the ropes. The crowd is loving the exchanges and Mikhail especially does a good job of selling the damage sustained, from his targeted leg to the rib kicks. They trade some big strikes -- knees, kicks, body shots, face palms -- and in an awesome moment, TK uses a triangle counter out of a leg whip. But Mikhail immediately muscles him over into a heel hook. TK's rolling front necklock is dope but countered with a side choke and when Mikhail tries to finish him off with the single leg, TK counters that with the kneebar for the submission finish. Great build to the final submission. 

Volk Han vs. Kiyoshi Tamura (RINGS, 1/22/97)

This was an incredible display of skill, struggle and lightning-quick reflexes by both Han and Tamura, with Han a looking a little more in control. But Tamura's all over him and continues to evade the submissions with his slick as catshit maneuvering. The opening wristlock takedown by Han was beautiful but Tamura is immediately back on his feet, only to get hammerlock suplexed down but again, Tamura roll with the throw and he's back on the legs, trying to grab a hold. Loved Han slipping his leg out of Tamura's rolling kneebar attempt, and then, of course, being aware of Tamura's positioning at all times, especially when he's got him centered with the calf slicer. Tamura's leg kicks pester Han and he swats at him with a wild spinning backhand but Tamura remains very cool throughout and continues to escape the arm holds, although it's taking a toll. Loved him shimmying around Han for the cross armbar, just using his speed to confuse his opponent. He manages a few more strikes, blasting Han with the straight kick to the cut, but in the end, Han secures the single calf slicer and taps him. Awesome match. 

Akira Maeda vs. Kiyoshi Tamura (RINGS, 3/28/97)

Tamura isn't going to lay down for the old dog Maeda and lays into him with strong kicks to set the stage. I loved Tamura's defiance here, sweeping the leg because he can, jooking and jiving to add the confusion,  breaking the leglock and staring down Maeda as the fans eat up every second of this. Tamura's cross heel hold counter had Maeda on the ropes and he looked he almost inadvertently tapped out. He managed to make Maeda look not broken down, and Maeda pulls out some neat tricks like the front necklock takeover. Tamura maneuvering in and out of holds, only to get caught in the double wristlock was a great sope, and I loved the finish, with Tamura's glimpse of hope getting choked out by the big boss. Is this Maeda's last great match? I guess we'll see...

Yoshihisa Yamamoto vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (RINGS, 4/4/97)

My goodness, what a battle. The escalation of the strikes, the desperation of the submission holds, the absolute struggle and narrow escapes, blood spilled and a concerned Akira Maeda. This match had it all. The matwork was very sharp, with both guys trying to take advantage of the other's mistakes, and the many reversals/counters were great and added to the drama in the final minutes. Loved TK's beautiful takedown into the heel hold. I like that the early strikes were used as mere transitions into submission attempts, and then the latter strikes became purely about the KO and finishing this grueling match. They're both so sluggish by the end of this, and each back-and-forth submission seems like a plausible finish, and as the time limit expires, they're both still fighting for the submission to win it all. Great great stuff. 

Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (RINGS, 4/22/97)

Very much a "worked shoot" - the most telling aspects being the groundwork. But it was a damn good match, with plenty of strong tension, good defense on the mat, and some real sneaky strikes, especially from Tamura. He really lets those palms fly - love TK's staggering collapse into the corner after Tamura catches him with a hard shot. The finish was great as well, as they both fight for an opening and Tamura finally cranks the ankle to force a submission (and a yelp) out of TK. 

Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Nikolai Zouev (RINGS, 6/21/97)

Awesome counterwork from both guys but more organic than something forced and hokey like a ZSJ match. The way Tamura transitions his holds or slides into a leglock is a thing of beauty. So fluid. Zouev's arm whip takedowns look pretty brutal and Zouev has a lot more patience on the mat when looking for an opening, whereas Tamura is all about overwhelming with speed. I really liked Zouev's simple wristlock answer to Tamura's calf slicer to send Tamura to the ropes. Zouev starts to show weakness when Tamura attacks the leg with kicks and you can see the frustration in Zouev mounting. Big head kick from Zouev to set-up the takedown but Tamura recovers and snags the armbar as a last-ditch effort but in the end, Zouev rolls him up with that unique submission for the big upset. This was a great match. 

Tsuyoshi Kosaka vs. Grom Zaza (RINGS, 7/22/97)

A "Best of" list wouldn't be complete without Grom Zaza. He's back and his takedowns are still filled with slams and wrist throws. Very good legwork throughout, with Zaza putting TK on the rocks plenty but TK's the slicker of the two with his transitions - really liked the rolling necklock sequence, which leads to a scramble and TK on top with the armbar attempt. Also, his beautiful kneebar transition, which forces Zaza to the ropes. Very much a chess match of takedowns/holds/counters with a little more of a worked feel than a lot of the 1997 RINGS match-ups. TK finally grabs the choke to finish him off. Very good match.

Volk Han vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (RINGS, 8/13/97)

Yup, this ruled - quite the do-si-do of mat techniques and counterwork. The human octopus, Volk Han, is just so good at trapping limbs out of any which direction, while Yamamoto is slippery throughout, flipping out of holds and turning the pressure on Han. Great awareness from both guys and great escalation of rope breaks and close calls. Yamamoto loves to milk the shit out of submission holds, especially that final Han leglock that brings him to his final out. There was a part midway through the match where Han grabs a low angle single leg, which Yamamoto counters with a heel hook, only for Han to react with the cross heel hook. Loved Han powering Yamamoto up on the armbar attempt and dumping him on his head. Some beautiful leglock takedowns from Han as usual, and a spirited performance from Yamamoto during his rehabilitation. Strong KO finish by Yamamoto to put the cherry on that exciting finishing stretch.

Volk Han vs. Kiyoshi Tamura (RINGS, 9/26/97)

Holy shit, what a masterpiece. I preferred this to their January match as well, as I felt this one was very high drama on the mat, with each submission seemingly a "Game Over" screen. Han's savvy is on full display here from the get-go, with that beautiful arm whip and then trying to destroy the arm while simultaneously positioning Tamura away from the ropes. His takedowns and counters are just so slick and organic. Ham grabbing the side headlock/neckcrank to counter the heel hook looked especially nasty. I thought Tamura's selling was subtle but top-notch when it comes to this style. There is thought behind every movement, a patience to find the right position/angle/leverage, which further blurs the line between worked and shoot. Loved Han's hammerlock throw into the armbar attempt. Tamura seems to utilize more kicks throughout this match, staggering Han with some big shots and then working the leg with repeat low kicks. When Han falls, he's quick to get back up before he's counted down but...no dice. The struggle and desperation during the final minutes, especially from Han, elevates the entire performance and he starts throwing those palm strikes as a countermeasure to Tamura's kick. Him knocking Tamura down and flaunting afterward was priceless. Tamura really fights to hit that judo throw to set up the final armbar and with Han positioned in the middle, he's got no choice but to submit. A fucking Plus.

Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Mikhail Ilioukhine (RINGS, 11/20/97)

A very good fight between these two, with Mikhail grabbing kicks and tossing or trying to go to the mat, whereas TK is rolling around, trying to avoid whilst also trying to entangle. TK plays great defense against the armbar attempts and manages some very nice takedowns and transitions. He also lets loose with the kicks and knees, trying to take Mikhail down with his strikes but Mikhail typically overpowers him on the mat. There's a real rugged quality to the matwork, in that they're working hard for each hold and counter. Nother super fancy, like Tamura/Han, but rough and tumble. The finish was dominant and looked pretty nasty. Good stuff. 

Akira Maeda vs. Mitsuya Nagai (RINGS, 11/20/97)

Look, we know who is winning this match, there's no question. But just when it seems like Nagai's here to play the Maeda game, he pops him hard with a palm strike, then very hard with an upper hand. And then he lets loose with the mini slaps and knee strike to the face. Maeda's clearly not happy with it and his response is often to smother Nagai. Nagai responds by grabbing a heel hold and sending Maeda quickly the ropes. Whenever they're on their feet, Nagai wins - he doesn't let up against the big boss and the fans are rallying behind him. Nagai tries to take his head off his shoulders with a high kick but Maeda blocks it. Ultimately, Maeda wins it with a rear choke but he takes a beating to get there. And even post-match, he's still pissed and slaps Nagai in the face. Very fun Nagai performance. 

Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Christopher Haseman (RINGS, 12/20/97)

Very good opener and TK showcase over Haseman, who's been a solid hand thus far, but this was probably my favorite Haseman match. TK working holds is always a joy, and I love that when Haseman tries to get fancy with the leg scissors takedown, TK sidesteps it. The wrist control he keeps on Haseman when he's trying to squirm away was great. Even when Haseman SLAMS TK down, it's no skin off TK's back and he's still able to outmaneuver Haseman on the mat and send him scrambling. Haseman's able to land big back-to-back-to-back head kicks to take down TK but in the end, TK grabs that high leg lock and Haseman tries his best to get out, including a double wristlock counter, but TK's pressure is too great. Very cool finish. Good stuff all around!

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You're way further ahead on these shows than me at this point. What would you say is the strongest overall year for the company (up to the point you've reached, at least)? Because late-decade RINGS usually grabs the most attention, but '95 and '96 are better represented there than '97 and it was '97 I expected to have the most good-to-great stuff when I started this thing. 

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I would say the highs are a little higher in 1996-1997, especially with the emergence of Tamura, but the shows in their entirety aren't as fun as say 93-95. The undercards were a blast and often outshined the main events. With 1996 and especially 1997, the undercards felt like afterthoughts and it was really built around the main events. While I can easily say 9/26 Han/Tamura is the best I've seen so far, I'd say 1994 was probably the strongest overall year in terms of top to bottom. There was a lot of emotion behind Yamamoto's ascent, Maeda was back from injury, and it also has my second favorite RINGS match in Han/Nagai. But to be fair, my enthusiasm for watching wrestling has dropped significantly since finishing 1995 and it's probably a reflection of that in the shorter 96-97 lists. 


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