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[1980-04-03-NJPW-Big Fight Series] Tatsumi Fujinami vs Ashura Hara


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I LOVE 80s JUNIOR WRESTLING! And this has prime Fujinami in a match with interpromotional flavor. We know junior Hara is game from his match with Zrno the year before, and he was game here once again. But this match was less about matwork and more about building intensity, as they would work uncooperative holds, slap eachother, stare and make you root for Fujinami kicking Hara in the mouth. In terms of technical work this bout isn't on the level of the high end 1980 stuff, but the general sense of "these two really are about to kick the shit out of eachother" is awesome in it's own way. Like all great old junior wrestling the timing is great, as they really build towards the dropkicks and other basic highspots. Hara busts out the rugby tackles and his insane backflip suplex once again, and gets so mad by Fujinami retreating that he busts him open with meaty punches and headbutts. Match felt like it ended 5 minutes too early, altough I take a pissed off Hara stomping a bloody Fujinami in the face and Fujinami making a desperate flash comeback over lengthy sections of 2,9999 counts and shocked faces.

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  • GSR changed the title to [1980-04-03-NJPW-Big Fight Series] Tatsumi Fujinami vs Ashura Hara
  • 2 years later...

This might not have been the end of NJPW's partnership with the IWE, but with how damaging the result was it might as well have been. As such, I think this is the most appropriate place for me to info dump some historical context that I think should be out there somewhere on the English-language Internet. Strap in, boys, because this story takes a while.

In 1975, the IWE needed help. After TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) had cancelled their coverage of the promotion, Tokyo 12 Channel picked them up. However, this was not as good or as widely carried a network. Most immediately, the reduced broadcasting rights fee was not enough for the promotion to afford to continue their deal with the AWA. (One thing I recently heard, when my comment on an upload from a YouTube channel of IWE tapes was replied to, was that this came down to a choice between the AWA deal or the booking services of Tetsunosuke Daigo, and they chose the latter.) The IWE had been friendlier with AJPW than NJPW from the beginning; this was rooted in payment issues during Inoki's work with the IWE as the ace of Tokyo Pro Wrestling in 1967. But here is where the AJPW/IWE alliance really kicked into gear. They needed exposure and credibility, and they got it. Hence the IWE appearances for All Japan in this era: the three IWE participants in the 1975 Open League, that Jumbo/Rusher Kimura match from March 1976, Mighty Inoue and Animal Hamaguchi's run as All Asia tag champs, Kimura and Kusatsu's entry in the 1977 Open Tag League.

But things took a turn in 1978. The big blow to the IWE's kayfabe credibility was in February, in which Kimura lost a singles match against Baba by countout. (It's one of those finishes that was clearly intended as some measure of protection but just makes one guy look like a dumbass. Rusher tries to roll out of the ring whilst in a Baba figure-four, but while he can't get them both out of the ring on his momentum, he's apparently just too far out to reach up for the rope break. Thus Higuchi counts him out.) It was that autumn, though, when the relationship between the companies came into question for business reasons. As this was going on, IWE president and founder Isao Yoshihara was meeting with Hisashi Shinma, NJPW business head (and kayfabe WWF figurehead pre-Tunney). Yoshihara had petitioned the Tokyo District Court to block NJPW from booking Ryuma Go, yet another talent they had poached from them. This was unsuccessful, but as Yoshihara started meeting up with Shinma, either his plans shifted or his real intention presented itself. Back when Tokyo Pro Wrestling subsumed into the IWE, he could have gotten Shinma for himself had he acquiesed to his demands to book Toyonobori as the ace. That might not have been a good idea anyway, but either way, Yoshihara had lost big time in the long run by pushing Shinma away from him, and he clearly regretted it deeply.

I'm not quite sure on the order of when these two things happened, so let's just tie up the AJPW end now. During their November 25, 1978 show at the Kuramae Kokugikan, at which several AJPW wrestlers were booked, the Kobayashis Strong and Kuniaki each worked the card. As this NJPW involvement had occurred without Baba's knowledge or consent, he was furious, and after the tour ended he terminated AJPW's arrangement. And the thing is, all this might have been worth it had Yoshihara's plan worked. For during one of his meetings with Shinma, Yoshihara offered his seat as president of IWE. This wouldn't necessarily be a merger, but if Shinma took the reins of the company while keeping his rapport with Inoki, surely they could do a lot of big business with an interpromotional rivalry? Well, Inoki shot it down immediately, as he was disinterested in an interpromotional angle and didn't want to lose Shinma. This, of course, was compounded by his personal dislike of Yoshihara over their business dealings a decade prior.

In short, Kokusai had given up their alliance with Zen Nihon for a mere partnership with Shin Nihon. Inoki never stepped foot in an IWE ring, nor did Sakaguchi or even Fujinami. Essentially, for 1979, Yoshihara gave up Baba and Jumbo to get Masa Saito for one tour – and this is 1979 Masa Saito that we are talking about – and a returning Umanosuke Ueda for three. 

As for this match, it's the most famous product of the IWE/NJPW partnership for a reason, being the only time when an IWE talent - the future of the company, at that! - got to challenge anyone so high on the totem pole. And to get this out of the way, I think it's a really good match! But it's also emblematic of how 1980 was the year when everything fell apart for the IWE, and that is its greatest legacy.

Alas, things only worsened afterward. At some point in the year, the television program's director who had been there since the beginning of their Tokyo 12 Channel run left amidst personnel changes. The Great Kusatsu fractured his right ankle in front of a hometown crowd in Kumamoto on July 9, and would never wrestle again. Then, on July 26, after misfortune upon misfortune, the promotion was struck by outright catastrophe when a taxi crashed into their dojo and burned it to the ground in the ensuing gas explosion. Kintaro Oki, a signing made by the network behind Yoshihara's back to increase ratings, would fail at this and thus not have his contract renewed. The special seasonal budgets which had allowed the IWE to book Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel would be withheld, and then cancelled, by a network suspicious of Yoshihara and his unwillingness to provide them a budgetary breakdown. So plans to bring over Baron von Raschke failed, and in March 1981, just as they began to rebuild their dojo, Tokyo 12 Channel announced they were discontinuing regular coverage of the IWE. Thus, their death rattle began.

Sixteen months after wrestling Fujinami, Hara found himself on the grounds of an elementary school in Rausu, for a hastily arranged show which would be the ignoble end of the IWE. For their final tour, they hadn't even managed to book Korakuen; the best they could do so far as Tokyo was concerned was a parking lot in Machida. (I get a little annoyed when the IWE is referred to as an indie fed, as it simply wasn't true...but by this point, sure.) The company's funds were so depleted that the entourage couldn't even pay their own way all the way back to Tokyo, relying on the generosity of a bus driver on the Tōhoku Expressway. Hara had no interest in joining Kimura, Hamaguchi, and Teranishi in NJPW, despite Yoshihara's recommendation. He was still genuinely bitter about this match, and had intended to simply retire and take over his family farm. But then, Giant Baba would contact IWE commentator Tadao Monma to express interest in him, and the rest is history.

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  • 2 years later...

Tatsumi Fujinami (c) vs. Ashura Hara
WWF Junior Heavyweight Title Match
Kuramae Kokugikan, Tokyo, Japan

I loved the way they presented this match. Shoot style exists so this would be a step down from that, but looking at it from a more pro-style approach, this is an excellent example of “if wrestling were real”. Everything both men did in the ring came across as real and felt like something either man would have done in a real fight. And boy did this feel like a fight. From the off there was chippiness between the two. There were slaps thrown, kicking the other man while he was in the ropes. This is by far the most engaged I’ve seen Fujinami. His matches up to this point have been good, his work has been good, he’s even bled before (twice!) but he exuded far more charisma than I’ve seen from him before. If this is the real Fujinami then sign me up. 
I don’t have much to say about the events of the match beyond both men beat the shit out of each other, Fujinami ate a ring post and ended up with a crimson mask, Ashura nearly stole the title with a crazy Senton Drop with a backflip into a pin move I’ve never seen before. Then Fujinami put the challenger away with a Picklock(?) which was a kind of headscissors but with Ashura’s arm pulled through. The main takeaway is the key fact that this was a great match with an absolutely electric atmosphere. Gold stars all around.

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  • 8 months later...

Another really good Fujinami match, he was so versatile in 1980 and could adapt to any opponent. Here the matwork takes a step back, as Hara hits hard and Fujinami is not afraid to change his strategy and do the same. Once again, they go back to Fujinami's forehead wound, so by the end of the match he's bleeding a ton, but he dishes a lot of punishment as well and is not afraid to push a boundaries a little bit, like kicking Hara while the opponent is at the ropes. This only lasted 12/13 minutes, so there is zero downtime and everything looks so solid. Hara is a big threat and so Fujinami goes back to what he knows best, submitting his opponent to win the match. This was different than what the New Japan Junior Heavyweights were and would become, but it worked really well

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