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My New Year's Revolution: The Rewatchening


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Around 2011, I first had the idea of making a list of ten matches that, if stranded on a desert island, I could watch and be entertained indefinitely. I soon decided that ten matches weren't sufficient to encapsulate everything I enjoy about pro wrestling, so the list eventually expanded to 50 and then 100 matches. After exposing myself to as much wrestling from as many regions and eras as I could, I now have a list of 200 matches that I can unreservedly call my favorites (as of January 1, 2020, anyway). Now that the list is solidified, I want to give the matches a fresh look so I can properly rank them. So for the next month or so (or however long it takes), this project will be my primary wrestling focus. I plan on watching each match on my list in chronological order and ranking them as I go. After I watch a match, I'll provide about a paragraph's worth of thoughts and assign it a star rating. I'll provide my ongoing rankings 50, 100, and 150 matches in with the final ranking coming after I've gone through all 200. I'm going to try to get through ten matches a day, so I should be done by the end of the month as long as no major life events get in the way and I'm not overcome by the urge to procrastinate.

What should you expect if you decide to follow along? The bulk of my selections are from the 80s and 90s, but every year from 1980 to 2019 is represented along with a few matches from earlier years. My tastes tend toward heavyweight slugfests, classic-style (i.e., not ECW) brawls, David vs. Goliath matchups, and matches with strong body part psychology. Expect to see a lot of Bret Hart, Vader, and the stars of 80s/90s All Japan. While many of the selections are among the most universally acclaimed matches of all time, some will probably have several of you scratching your heads in bewilderment as to how I could possibly rate it as highly as I do. If any of the matches I describe pique your interest, most of them are available online (on YouTube/Dailymotion/WWE Network/NJPW World/Ditch's website/etc.). I don't expect anybody to significantly alter their overall outlook as a result of this, but maybe some people will discover some new matches or see old ones in a different light. If nothing else, I hope you find my thoughts somewhat interesting or provocative.

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Wrestle Kingdom ended up draining me a bit more than I expected, but I've finally made it through the first set of matches. While working on these writeups, it became clear to me that ten matches a day was too ambitious a goal, so I'll most likely stick to five a day going forward.

Giant Baba vs. Billy Robinson (AJPW, 7/24/76) 

If I had to describe this match in one word, it would be “cerebral.” Like most matches of the era, it’s contested largely on the mat and worked at a quite methodical pace, at least by modern standards. But it’s a far cry from the stereotype of work a hold for a few minutes, run the ropes for a bit, back to the hold. The holds, throws, and strikes are contested with a virtually shoot-like intensity, and no sustained advantage comes easy. The broad story of the match is Robinson’s leg work vs. Baba’s head and neck work, and the two threads come together brilliantly in the third fall when Robinson is too eager to press his advantage and Baba kicks him back, causing him to land on the back of his head and giving Baba space to make his comeback. Based on this match, Robinson appears to be one of the most influential wrestlers who ever lived. He's best known for his technical skill, but that’s only part of the story. His elbow smashes were practically Misawa-esque, and his staggered selling was reminiscent of Kawada. In all, his combination of technique, action, and psychology was decades ahead of its time. It must be said that Baba’s selling of the leg work was so understated as to be virtually nonexistent, which undercut the drama somewhat. And the RKO outta nowhere-style finish felt disconnected from the match as a whole. Even so, this is quite the achievement. It’s an acquired taste for sure, but for those attuned to its wavelength, few matches are more rewarding. ****1/2 

 Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Jack Brisco (AJPW, 8/28/76) 

This is a more conventional 70s NWA-style match, and it’s my favorite example of the genre. Most of Jumbo’s universally acclaimed work is from the late 80s and early 90s, well past his physical prime, so it’s easy to forget what an athletic marvel he was in his youth. It should not be possible for someone his size to bust out a crisp flying headscissors takedown. Even so, Brisco was the one largely driving things. The way he took advantage of the ropes and threw cheap shots while working holds, along with his borderline-comical selling of Jumbo’s back work, was quintessential 70s scientific heel work. Him laying the badmouth on a supine Jumbo after winning the second fall with a figure-four was the clear highlight of the match. Jumbo’s selling of his injured leg in the third fall was world-class, and the way he mounted a believable comeback while being mostly unable to stand demonstrated an intuitive grasp of psychology well beyond his level of experience. In particular, returning to Brisco’s back, which he had targeted earlier in the match, was a nice wrinkle. An incredible mix of action and drama. ****1/2 

 Dynamite Kid vs. Tatsumi Fujinami (NJPW, 2/5/80) 

This match as as good a pick as any for the beginning of history. That is, it’s probably the oldest match that someone reared on modern wrestling could watch and enjoy without significantly altering their expectations. There’s a nice mix of mat wrestling, brawling, and high flying, the action never really drags, and it doesn’t go long enough to overstay its welcome. Dynamite has gone down in history as a workrate pioneer, but his best work was as a soccer hooligan working over his opponent with punches, headbutts, stomps, and the like. There’s a consistent thread of Fujinami wanting to stick to wrestling while Dynamite does everything he can to turn the match into a street fight. Fujinami comes in with a bandaged forehead, and you’d better believe the cut gets reopened. Dynamite casually sidestepping a plancha was a pretty insane spot late in the match. The finish was rather abrupt, but it got Fujinami over as a master technician who had to reach deep into his bag of tricks to survive. ****1/2 

 Bob Backlund vs. Ken Patera (WWF, 5/19/80) 

I didn't like this as much on my most recent viewing as much as I had in the past, but it still holds up really well for the most part. Patera blitzing Backlund in the opening minute was textbook high-end brawling, as was Backlund’s comeback. Unfortunately, the next several minutes drag significantly, although Patera’s bearhug and full nelson make sense in the context of his strongman gimmick. Things pick back up after Backlund gets busted open on the outside. A bloody Backlund punching the air while Patera weaved in and out of range was inspired stuff. Patera cutting off Backlund’s comeback with a low blow was great as well. I love it when wrestlers avail themselves of no-DQ rules by utilizing street tactics. I suppose Backlund’s chairshots at the end were kind of business-exposing, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. ****1/2 

 Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk (Memphis, 3/23/81) 

If you like minimalist brawls, this is as good as it gets. The only actual wrestling moves in this match are an atomic drop in the opening minutes and a spinning toehold near the end. Other than that, it’s all punches and elbows and stomps and headbutts and biting and swinging of chairs. And it’s awesome. Lawler and Funk are arguably the two greatest punchers of all time in terms of quality and variety, and they both pretty well exhaust their respective repertoires: jabs, straights, uppercuts, body blows, diving fist drops, even supine punches. World-class selling from both (sympathetic babyface selling from Lawler and comical rudo selling from Funk) makes it feel like a real war of attrition. Add some well-timed interference spots from Jimmy Hart and you have a bona fide classic. ****3/4 

 Sgt. Slaughter vs. Pat Patterson (WWF, 5/4/81) 

This has to be the closest approximation of a real-life bar fight to ever take place in a wrestling ring. Slaughter and Patterson both work the match like tough-as-nails bruisers without any real hand-to-hand combat willing to use anything at their disposal to wreak havoc. Patterson uses his belt and boot as weapons while Slaughter tries to strangle Patterson with his own shirt and utilizes Krav Maga-esque eye rakes and low blows. Both guys take some pretty huge bumps out of the ring, and Slaughter’s crimson mask after his signature bump into the turnbuckle is the obvious match highlight. The Grand Wizard throwing in the towel on his charge’s behalf would seem like a copout in most matches, but it works here because Slaughter was in desperate need of medical attention and wasn’t going to surrender of his own accord. What this lacks in grace it more than makes up for in brutality. ****1/2 

 Ric Flair vs. Brett Sawyer (Portland, 10/2/82) 

A classic touring champion vs. local challenger title match. In a lot of ways, I think Flair was at his best as NWA Champion in the early 80s. He still made his opponents look a million bucks, but he was much better about not damaging the prestige of the championship by not making himself look too weak. This match is a case in point. Flair usually comes across as wily or underhanded in his title defenses, but he’s hardly ever as vicious as he is here. He really gives Sawyer the third degree with chops, suplexes, knee and elbow drops, and Memphis-quality punches. But he’s also an incredibly giving seller and bumper when it’s time for Sawyer to make his comeback. He even consistently sells his leg throughout the third fall after Sawyer wins the second with a figure-four leg lock. There is a pretty precipitous decline in quality in the third fall, which is mostly controlled by Sawyer. And they seem to run out of ideas by the end, which leads to several repeated spots. The finish was a technically clean but somewhat flukish way for the champion to retain. Overall, Flair looks like the clear best in the world and Sawyer has his stock raised by forcing the world champion to go to such lengths to put him away. ****1/4 

 Antonio Inoki/Tatsumi Fujinami vs. Riki Choshu/Masa Saito (NJPW, 2/3/83) 

 Most people will probaly see this as a historical curiosity rather than an actively great match, but I really dig it. The rough uncooperative grappling in the beginning was textbook early 80s strong style. I especially enjoyed how Choshu and Saito would force their opponents into their corner to set up double-teams whenever they got in trouble. The double-teaming was primitive by today’s standards, but you can see the origins of 90s All Japan tags in their work. Unfortunately, Fujinami no-selling Saito suplexes to throw dropkicks was incredibly disappointing. Inoki’s selling of Choshu/Saito’s back work was much better, although him sitting in Boston crabs for an extended period wasn’t terribly exciting. Where wasn't much of a build to the finish, but it worked for me because it seemed like Inoki was on his last legs and swinging for the fences with his enzuigiris. Plus, a clean finish in Japan in 1983 is nothing to sneeze at. ****1/4 

Dynamite Kid vs. Marty Jones (World of Sport, 2/5/83) 

This is the most entertaining British match I’ve ever seen, thanks largely to Dynamite’s soccer hooligan antics. I really enjoyed his “aw shucks, I forgot I couldn’t do that under British rules” shtick whenever he would attack Jones while he was lying on the mat or do a diving headbutt. The amount of heat he got simply by going to the top rope was impressive. I will admit that you probably have to have a degree of familiarity with British wrestling to understand how far out of bounds Dynamite’s behavior was. I also enjoyed the use of ten-counts, which allowed them to trade high-impact moves without no-selling. Even Kent Walton was marking out by the end. ****1/4 

Jerry Lawler vs. Bill Dundee (Memphis, 6/6/83) 

There’s some unfortunate clipping in the opening minutes, but it doesn’t appear that any major transitions are missing, and what we do have is some of the best pro wrestling ever committed to film. More than anything, it’s a testament to how compelling basic offense can be when the execution and selling are on point. Enough has been written about the quality of Lawler and Dundee’s punches that I won’t belabor the point. For the most part, though, this match is worked more like a heavyweight prize fight than a hate-filled grudge match. In particular, the tentativeness both competitors show at the outset serves to emphasize the extremely high stakes of the matchup. Dundee being unable to properly execute a piledriver due to fatigue was a great real sports-esque spot. It’s only when Dundee feels he has a clear advantage that he really opens things up, and he looks like an absolute madman when pummeling Lawler with lefts and rights and stomping on his head from the apron. Lawler’s strap drop may have been the greatest of his career in terms of how well-timed it was and the reaction it received, and his uppercut at the end to set up the piledriver was glorious. ****3/4 

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Thank you.

MS-1 vs. Sangre Chicana (EMLL, 9/23/83) 

I usually don’t care for matches that strongly adhere to an established formula, but sometimes perfecting a formula can be just as captivating as subverting it. Lucha apuestas matches (where the masks and/or hair of the competitors are on the line) tend to go as follows: the rudo jumps the tecnico before the bell, leading to a completely one-sided first fall. The domination continues into the second fall before the tecnico makes a comeback and evens things up, leading to an evenly contested third fall with lots of nearfalls. This match follows that formula to a T, but it transcends the formula by executing it so perfectly as to become the Platonic ideal for the genre. What sets it apart? For one thing, MS-1's offensive assault during the rudo beatdown is impressively varied. Punching, kicking, stomping, knees and headbutts, ramming Chicana’s head into the apron and turnbuckle, the whole nine yards. Chicana’s selling is also noteworthy. He’s not doing conventional pro wrestling bumping, he’s flopping and stumbling around like a guy who’s getting his ass kicked in a fight. His left hook (literally his first offensive maneuver of the match) followed by a Hoganesque finger point is a suitably epic turning point. A lot of luchadores in this situation engage in rush-of-adrenaline no-selling during their comebacks, but Chicana continues to wobble around like he’s out on his feet. In that context, hitting a tope and crawling back into the ring to win by countout was pretty much the perfect way to win the second fall. By the third fall, both guys are bleeding so heavily that pretty much anything is a credible nearfall. An unequivocal must-see even if you're not into lucha as a whole. ****3/4 

Tony Salazar vs. Herodes (EMLL, 3/2/84) 

This match is notable simply by virtue of the presence of Herodes, who looks (and works) more like a Mexican Harley Race than a typical luchador. It’s almost as if a territory worker thought he was booked at the Omni or Greensboro Coliseum and got sent to Mexico as a rib. Of course, this turns into a total bloodbath by the third fall, but we also get some fantastic spots where Herodes sidesteps Salazar’s high-flying offense. Herodes even does a tope, which has to be seen to be believed. The main problem with this match is that the three falls felt largely disconnected from each other. In particular, I would have liked to have seen the arm work in the second fall followed up on. Even so, the whole ends being more than the sum of its parts. ****1/4 

Sgt. Slaughter vs. Iron Sheik (WWF, 6/16/84) 

For those unfamiliar with the Boot Camp Match, it’s a falls count anywhere match that can only be won by pinfall. There’s not even a shred of scientific wrestling in this match, but that’s just the way I like it. As far as I’m concerned, a pro wrestling brawl should have as little wrestling as possible. Impact moves like suplexes are fine, but there should be no working of holds or fancy pinning combinations. After all, if you hate someone’s guts and are in a no-holds-barred fight, you’re not going to put him in an armbar or a chinlock, you’re going to sock him in the jaw. But the wrestlers still have to take a periodic breather, which is where the big bumps out of the ring come in. It allows them to sell the accumulated damage and catch their breath without resorting to restholds. Sheik’s dreaded loaded boot pretty well solves of the question of how to finish a match involving two guys with submission finishers that can only end by pinfall. Some might find the selling overly theatrical or be unable to suspend their disbelief for the loaded boot, but that’s their loss. ****3/4 

Terry Gordy vs. Killer Khan (WCCW, 11/22/84) 

This might be the head-bitingest match of all time. The Texas death match stipulation doesn’t really lend itself to great matches due to the rest periods usually killing the match’s flow. Gordy and Khan manage to get around this by keeping the pins to a minimum (only three the entire match) and focusing on brawling and bleeding. Nothing fancy, just two tubby dudes clubbering each other for sixteen minutes. I dig guys who can come across as both dangerous and comical, and Khan definitely fits the bill. One minute he’s ramming Gordy into the ring post and biting his bloody forehead, another he’s doing the splits to sell a punch, and neither seems out of place. The clear standout from World Class, which had to have been the worst major territory from a match quality standpoint. ****1/2 

Jim Duggan vs. Ted DiBiase (Mid-South, 3/22/85) 

On paper, a no DQ loser leaves town coal miner’s glove on a pole tuxedo steel cage match sounds like something only Vince Russo would come up with. There’s even an object on a pole. But this is a far cry from Russo because at its core, it’s just a fantastic brawl with the gimmicks accenting the action rather than overtaking it. The look of terror on DiBiase’s face when his sneak attack at the beginning fails and he realizes he’s locked in a cage with a pissed-off Duggan is a classic moment. You know the coal miner’s glove will factor into the finish, so this is largely worked as a quasi-last man standing match with DiBiase beating the hell out of Duggan so he can climb the pole unimpeded. Even the tuxedos come into play with DiBiase pulling Duggan’s shirt over his head and punching him like a hockey goon. Pulling DiBiase off the pole and crotching him on the turnbuckle was a believable way for Duggan to get back into the match. The finish is rather reminiscent of Slaughter/Sheik, just with the glove rather than the loaded boot serving as the MacGuffin. I don’t think it goes quite long enough to hit true epic level, but as a decisive blowoff to a heated feud, there are few equals. ****1/2 

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Dream Team vs. Ricky Steamboat/Tito Santana (WWF, 4/21/85) 

A hidden gem tag classic. Fair warning: Valentine and Beefcake spend much of the first few minutes stalling, which is great for generating crowd heat but not so great at entertaining me. I liked how the Santana-in-peril section began with him going for the figure four and having it countered. I’m a strong advocate of wrestlers suffering penalties for going for their finishers too early. Otherwise, there’s no kayfabe reason for them to not spend the entire match trying to land them. I also really liked Santana’s between-the-legs hot tag. Face-in-peril sections would have more suspense if it was established that the heel didn’t have to be completely incapacitated for a tag to occur. The Dream Team’s work on top was an interesting mixture of American-style underhanded tactics behind the referee’s back (I especially enjoyed Beefcake pulling Santana into his corner by the trunks to prevent him from countering a Valentine armbar) and more Japanese-style blatant double-teams in full view of the ref. Great action, great heat, great stuff all around. ****1/2 

Stan Hansen vs. Terry Funk (AJPW, 8/23/85) 

Among fans of the Terry/Hansen feud in 80s All Japan, this is usually considered the weakest of their matches with each other, but it’s by far my favorite. The brawling is more intense, the selling is better (particularly from Hansen), and there’s no downtime in the form of bearhugs and chinlocks. Hansen picking Terry up and tossing him out of the ring like a jobber in the Royal Rumble pretty well sets the tone for the match. Terry’s comeback with JYD headbutts after Hansen missed an elbow drop was a pretty brilliant transition. Overall, though, this match is all about two Texas roughnecks punching each other and all that entails. Hansen and DiBiase trying to strangle Terry with Hansen’s bullrope after the match is a bit too close to attempted murder for my tastes, but it’s redeemed by Dory running in for the save and the three of them recklessly throwing chairs at each other. ****1/4 

British Bulldogs vs. Hart Foundation (WWF, 9/23/85) 

One of my favorite tag matches of the 80s, a nice combination of classic tag structure and Stampede-style workrate. And all in spite of Neidhart being almost completely useless. His offensive repertoire consists entirely of restholds and clubbing blows, and he does nothing interesting on the apron. One spot in particular stuck out to me. While working over Dynamite, Bret cheap-shots Davey Boy off the apron, prompting the referee to restrain Davey to keep him from running in. That seemed to be designed to allow Neidhart to interfere behind the referee’s back, but he does nothing. He was also late running in to break up a Dynamite backslide pin later in the match. Thankfully, Bret is more than capable of carrying the load. With all the interfering and distracting he was doing on the apron in addition to his work as the legal man, he was practically wrestling for two. Dynamite is of course an offensive dynamo, with a vicious knee drop in the opening minutes and a brutal clothesline to Bret’s larynx off the hot tag being particular highlights. But it was his selling that really stuck out to me, both with his facials and his body language. The way he crumpled in pain after a Neidhart body blow was especially impressive. Gorilla Monsoon burying the referee for shoot incompetence by allowing the Hart Foundation to switch without tagging right before his eyes was icing on the cake. ****1/2 

Rick Martel vs. Jumbo Tsuruta (AWA, 9/29/85) 

Jumbo and Martel wrestled each other for the AWA title on several occasions in 1984 and 1985. Most of their matches were rather dull mat-based affairs, but this is a total slugfest. In fact, given the breakneck pace and lack of attention to selling, you could argue that this is a something of a spotfest and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree. I’m pretty sure this is the earliest footage we have of Jumbo working as a full-blown heel. He throws clean scientific wrestling out the window and treats Martel the way he would treat Misawa and company five years later, working him over with knee lifts, European uppercuts, and suplexes. But it’s not just the rougher style that sets him apart. Between playing king of the mountain (a standard AWA heel sequence), taunting the crowd with his trademark “Oh!,” and attacking Martel after he scores a fluke pinfall win, it’s a fully realized heel performance. For his part, Martel shows plenty of fire, but he’s not terribly concerned with selling during his comebacks, perhaps out of fear of looking weak because Jumbo was taking so much of the match. Regardless, watching Jumbo rough up an opponent is one of life’s most sublime joys. ****1/2 

Jerry Lawler vs. Bill Dundee (Memphis, 12/30/85) 

Compared to their 1983 match, this is more of an all-out brawl. Lawler and Dundee are two of the greatest punchers and sellers of all time, so that’s far from a knock. It also has a much hotter opening. Rather than beginning with conventional Memphis stalling, Dundee takes advantage of Lawler’s bandaged eye and tees off on him from the get-go. Dundee’s work in the opening minutes is a virtuoso heel performance: in addition to getting his licks in, he weaves in and out of Lawler’s field of vision, does the Fargo strut, and even spits on him. I usually quickly lose interest in extended one-sided beatdowns, but Dundee’s ability to mix things up kept it interesting. I also liked how even when Lawler managed to land some punches, Dundee would recover first and continue the assault. If Lawler was going to come back, he was going to have to really earn it. Lawler falling from the stands to the floor is the most notable spot, but it’s actually my least favorite part of the match. For one thing, I thought the setup to the brawl in the stands was poor. Why would Dundee try to walk out when that would cause him to lose by countout? In addition, Lawler being able to beat the count and return to the ring made the bump less impactful than it should have been. Other than that, the biggest problem with the match was the clipping. Over a third of the match is missing, including the transition to Lawler’s first sustained run of offense. Thankfully, we get all of the last several minutes. Lawler collapsing in exhaustion after his post-strap drop punch flurry is a truly epic moment, and the finish was cleverly set up. I’ve always preferred the 1983 match, but this is a fine sequel. ****3/4 

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Ted DiBiase vs. Dick Murdoch (Mid-South, 12/31/85) 

When watching classic 80s brawls, you have to marvel at their ability to get so much mileage out of different varieties of punches and kicks with minimal use of international objects. After all, any backyarder can swing a chair or put someone through a table. If you can have a high-end brawl with only your bare hands, you're ahead of the game. More specifically with this match, a couple of things stand out. First of all, I love how Murdoch sells punches, like he bit into an ice cube after a root canal. Second, it's pretty cool to see how DiBiase utilizes his signature spots as a babyface. The diving fist drop becomes a comeback spot, and he becomes the one who catches his opponent's foot when attempting a kick rather than vice-versa. Murdoch stalling just enough at the end to give DiBiase enough time to load up his glove was a great way for the heel to get hoist by his own petard without being too over-the-top about it. ****1/2 

Jumbo Tsuruta/Genichiro Tenryu vs. Riki Choshu/Yoshiaki Yatsu (AJPW, 1/28/86) 

When Choshu jumped to All Japan, his intense action-based style didn’t immediately gel with the more taditional NWA-based style preferred by the likes of Jumbo. Once they were able to come together, they elevated the in-ring art to an unprecented degree and set the stage for the brilliance of the 90s. The opening minutes are fantastically chippy with plenty of stiff strikes and strong resistance to even basic holds. The match hits GOAT contender level with a sequence a little more than five minutes in where Tenryu has Choshu in a figure-four leglock. Choshu tags out to Yatsu, who drops elbows on Tenryu while his legs are still entangled, prompting Jumbo to run in and stomp Choshu’s injured ribs. From there, his ribs become a bullseye for Jumbo and Tenryu to target, providing the narrative structure that drives the match. The backdrop and lariat are standard Choshu comeback spots, but here they only give him a temporary breather, as he’s too damaged to capitalize. Even tagging out provides no respite, as Tenryu makes an immediate beeline for him on the apron and does more damage to his ribs with a chair. I’d also like to mention that Jumbo was quite an underrated bleeder. He didn’t use the blade very often, but when he did, he almost always hit a gusher. Action, violence, and psychology: that’s 90s All Japan in a nutshell, and this is where it all began. I’ve seen the future, and it works. ***** 

Randy Savage vs. Tito Santana (WWF, 4/22/86) 

I always expect Savage’s matches to not hold up for some reason, but whenever I revisit them, I find that they hold up quite well. His explosiveness and animalistic intensity elevated everything he was in, and his preference for planning out his matches meant that they were usually tightly structured with strong transitions and minimal downtime. Even more importantly (to me, anyway), the action always had a sense of spontaneity and never felt overly choreographed. Much like modernist architecture, he was able to achieve simplicity through extensive planning and forethought. This match is a textbook example: thirteen minutes of wild brawling with Savage flying all over the place like a madman. He may not have displayed the variety of Lawler or Funk in the punching department, but I don’t know if anyone had a better straight right. Of course, Santana is no slouch in that department. Countering a diving double axehandle with a chair to Savage’s gut was the definite highlight of the match. Alas, Santana’s fiery Latin temper ends up costing him when he pulls Savage up from a pin at two to throw mounted punches. Savage of course gets the pin with a handful of tights, but it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. ****1/2 

Antonio Inoki vs. Dick Murdoch (NJPW, 6/19/86) 

My tolerance for working of holds mainly to kill time is extremely low, but purpose-driven holds are right up my alley. In this match, Murdoch stampedes Inoki at the beginning with knees and slams before going to work on his arm. Murdoch’s arsenal of arm locks is impressively varied, and he also makes sure to periodically mix in Anderson-style stomps and elbows. I loved how the damaged arm served as a target that prevented Inoki from going to the mat the way he’d like. Not only was it sound psychology, it relieved me of the burden of seeing Inoki lay on the mat for eternity. Inoki, to his credit, consistently sells the arm throughout, even at the end when most wrestlers would have blown it off. He also does a tremendous job of playing a wounded but dangerous bear, making his comeback with punches and enzuigiris while trying to protect his arm. I have to say that as much as the more choreographed modern style mostly leaves me cold, this match shows how lack of planning can drag down an otherwise fantastic contest. For one thing, there are several instances where the match just kind of resets and neither wrestler is quite sure what to do next. In addition, there’s a major miscommunication at the end. Inoki hits a German suplex but can’t maintain the bridge because of the damage to his arm, but Murdoch doesn’t kick out. The crowd goes crazy because they think the match is over, but that wasn’t supposed to be the finish. Inoki gets the pin with an enzuigiri immediately afterward to little more than polite applause. There were also more countout teases than I would have cared for, but that’s just the nature of the beast in 80s Japan. Subtract those hiccups and this is a serious contender for best New Japan match of the 80s, if not best overall. Even so, it's well worth checking out. ****1/4 

Riki Choshu vs. Killer Khan (AJPW, 7/31/86)

A minimalist approach to wrestling can mean a couple of different things. It can mean action based around basic strikes and holds, and it can also mean taking shortcuts to get away with doing as little as possible in the ring. As it turns out, they employed both approaches in this match. Choshu and Khan are both somewhat limited, but they have an incredible flair for the dramatic, so they’re able to make every punch and stomp seem like a titanic blow. It’s not the most graceful action ever committed to film, but I’ll take rough and violent over pretty and bloodless any day of the week. Reaching through the ropes to attack an opponent on the floor is a highly underrated tactic. Unfortunately, there’s also plenty of cutting of corners in the form of all the bullshit on the floor. I have no problem with that sort of thing in small doses, but I felt like they pushed it beyond the limits of tolerance. Still, the good stuff is really really good, and there’s enough of it to make it worth your time. ****1/4 

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On 1/8/2020 at 2:02 AM, NintendoLogic said:

Giant Baba vs. Billy Robinson (AJPW, 7/24/76) 

Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Jack Brisco (AJPW, 8/28/76)

That Tsuruta vs Brisco match seems to me to e one of the more underrated great matches of all time. For example: The (also obviously great) Jumbo vs Terry Funk match from '76 seems to make a lot of all time lists, but the Brisco match rarely seem to. I was delighted to see the Brisco match on your list. Jumbo's selling during the third fall is really beautiful. It's my second-favourite match from the 1970s. In fact, the only match I've seen from that decade that I definitely love more is Giant Baba vs Billy Robinson, which I consider the absolute source spring from which all of King's Road Style flows.

2 hours ago, NintendoLogic said:

Riki Choshu vs. Killer Khan (AJPW, 7/31/86)

Terry Gordy vs. Killer Khan (WCCW, 11/22/84) 

Is Killer Khan the undiscovered great match worker of the 1980s? I love both of these matches, and he had another great one vs Andre the Giant that is almost as good as the Stan Hansen vs Andre match. I once thought that Khan was one of the least compelling giant bad guys that the WWF brought in to lose to Hogan during the Hulkamania years... It was a very pleasant surprise to finally be introduced to footage of three great Killer Khan matches in the last couple of years. 

2 hours ago, NintendoLogic said:

Jumbo Tsuruta/Genichiro Tenryu vs. Riki Choshu/Yoshiaki Yatsu (AJPW, 1/28/86) 


A true classic! My third-favourite tag match of all time, after 6/9/95 and Hokuto & Kandori vs Bull & Kong (AJW - 3/27/1994). I'm looking forward to seeing if those matches make you list as well. 


On 1/10/2020 at 2:52 AM, NintendoLogic said:

MS-1 vs. Sangre Chicana (EMLL, 9/23/83) 


That punch is one of the most perfectly timed and perfectly executed moments in all of pro wrestling. 


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Glad you like my selections so far. And yeah, I find Khan's career incredibly fascinating. He worked seemingly everywhere and had classic matches in a lot of places, but he also had a lot of stinkers. Khan/Andre in the WWF vs. NJPW is like Rude/Chono in WCW vs. NJPW. He probably has a few hidden gems on his resume. The Segunda Caida guys should do a Complete and Accurate for him.

Midnight Rockers vs. Buddy Rose/Doug Somers (AWA, 8/30/86) 

I think that most people would agree that watching several epic matches in succession can be incredibly draining. I know I’ve felt that way a few times over the course of this project. This match had the opposite effect: after I watched it, I was so pumped up that I couldn’t wait to get to the next match. It’s a double-FIP tag match, and it’s an absolute clinic in tag team wrestling. The funny thing is, if you tried to predict the career trajectories of the Rockers based solely on this match, you’d probably guess that Jannetty would end up as the all-time legend and Michaels would be the answer to a trivia question. Shawn's selling is world-class, but Marty has more to offer in terms of offense and fire when working from underneath, making him the more complete wrestler at this point. With that said, Rose and Somers working Michaels over is the greatest FIP section I’ve ever seen in an American tag match and possibly any tag match period. Everything from the initial setup (Somers rams Michaels into the turnbuckle while the referee is admonishing Rose) to the eventual hot tag is absolutely flawless. Rose and Somers are a well-oiled machine, landing cheap shots every time the referee’s back is turned and drawing insane heat in the process. Somers walking up to Michaels and pulling his hand away when he was inches away from tagging out is brilliant heeling. It’s unfortunate that this was the midpoint of the feud rather than the blowoff, because if it had a proper finish, it would be far and away the greatest US tag match of all time. It still might be. ****3/4 

Nick Bockwinkel vs. Curt Hennig (AWA, 11/21/86) 

To a large extent, this is a match I find much easier to appreciate than enjoy. 70s-style matwork will never appeal to me viscerally the way peak King’s Road and high-end 80s brawls do, but if I were evaluating this as an achievement relative to the degree of difficulty involved, it would be five stars no doubt. After all, a one-fall 60-minute time-limit draw may be the most difficult kind of match to execute well. You have to work at a reasonably fast clip without burning yourself out too soon, wrestle logically without being repetitive, and provide enough twists and turns to keep the audience engaged without peaking too early and having the end come across as anticlimactic. And unlike in 2/3 falls and Iron Man matches, you don’t have the luxury of additional falls as a means of building drama and providing a breather. On that level, I’m blown away by what Hennig and Bockwinkel accomplished. From a purely subjective entertainment standpoint, though, there were parts of the match that fell flat for me. To be sure, the first half hour or so is physical chess at its absolute finest. All the textbook holds and counters are employed logically, and everything builds off what came before. One sequence in particular stands out. Hennig escapes a toehold by punching Bockwinkel’s injured arm and then drops a knee on the arm. But it’s the knee that Bockwinkel had been working over, so he collapses in pain, allowing Bockwinkel to recover first and go back to work on the leg with an Indian deathlock. However, they lose the plot somewhat about 35 minutes in, as they largely jettison their prior body part work and kind of aimlessly trade holds and strikes for a while. I will grant, though, that I probably would have found it more compelling had I been watching live without benefit of knowledge of the outcome. Fortunately, they get it back together in the last ten minutes, and the drama once Hennig starts bleeding is off the charts. He looks like the biggest badass on Earth by being able to fight through the blood loss and bust Bockwinkel open with his bare hands (or arm, as the case may be). Hennig collapsing on Bockwinkel after hitting the Axe but not getting the pin because Bock was on his belly rather than his back was a great real sports-style nearfall. Hennig applying the figure-four with about a minute and a half remaining was a nice touch: it’s long enough that Bockwinkel comes across as an incredibly gutsy bastard for being able to hold on but not so long that holding on would have been unbelievable. This isn’t something I can watch all the time, or even most of the time, but if I’m in the mood for a classic old-school broadway, this match scratches that particular itch like no other. ****1/4 

Rock & Roll Express vs. Andersons (NWA, 11/27/86) 

Take two all-time great asskickers, pit them against two all-time great asskickees, and stick the four of them in a steel cage, and greatness is bound to ensue. As much as the R&Rs are known for perfecting the classic tag team formula, this match subverts the formula in a couple of ways. One, the opening minutes are more like a chaotic fight than a structured tag match, which makes sense. After all, if you’re in a cage, you can’t do the typical babyface shine followed by the heels taking a powder on the outside. Two, even though it’s a double-FIP match, there’s no second hot tag. Anderson-style body part work, with traditional holds combined with roughhouse tactics like stomping and ramming the limb into a cage, is one of my favorite things in wrestling, and the tag environment allows us to see them work on both a leg (Gibson’s) and an arm (Morton’s). However, this match shows that it is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing, as the beatdown on Morton keeps going on and on and on to the point where an R&R comeback doesn’t seem credible. Coming back against the Midnight Express is one thing, but taking down a pair of hosses like the Andersons in a de facto handicap match is a completely different ballgame, especially with Gibson’s bum leg. Even the teeny-boppers in the audience seemed to be losing patience as the match dragged on. For what it's worth, the actual finish (a dropkick-assisted crossbody pin) was well-executed, but the match had peaked several minutes beforehand. Even so, going 20 minutes when 15 would have worked better is hardly egregious overkill. ****1/4 

Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat (WWF, 2/15/87) 

This match is largely similar to the one between the two at WM3, and some have argued that it’s even better than the Mania match due to it being grittier and more hate-filled. I don’t think I’d go that far, but it is an essential piece of the puzzle for understanding the overall arc of the Savage/Steamboat feud. People have criticized the Mania match for being too bloodless (both literally and figuratively) for a match involving a guy coming back against the man who had tried to crush his larynx. But the bloody revenge matches had already taken place on the house show circuit. When Steamboat first came back in January of 1987, he didn’t care about winning and just wanted a piece of Savage, usually leading to him getting disqualified. By the time this match rolled around, Steamboat realized that the best way to truly hurt Savage was to take his championship, but he still allowed his temper to get the best of him. As we saw in the Santana match, Savage made a habit of taking advantage of his opponents losing their composure in his title defenses. It's usually hard to get behind a babyface who gets consistently outsmarted by the heel, but Savage manages to be such a contemptible weasel that you can’t blame his opponent for blowing his stack. Another key difference is that unlike HHH-style cerebral assassin heels, Savage shows plenty of ass after the match to give the babyface something to hang his hat on. Savage gets the tainted win, but Steamboat ends up the moral victor, setting the stage for his ultimate triumph. ****1/2 

Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat (WWF, 3/29/87) 

Quite a few people have claimed that this match is only great by 80s WWF standards, but fuck that. This is a timeless classic that would stand out in any promotion in any era. Context is key, though. In fact, I prefer to think of this and the 2/15/87 match as elements of an overarching narrative rather than distinct matches. Steamboat’s temper cost him in the previous month’s match, so he makes a concerted effort to keep his cool this time around. He has the advantage when he sticks to wrestling, but when he gets more aggressive (chasing Savage on the outside, attacking Savage in the ropes), Savage is able to turn the tables. It’s also important to note that while this match is famous for being planned out and rehearsed beforehand, there are no sequences that are too complicated to have been called on the fly. That’s the key for me: plan it out if you must, but try to hide the strings. Steele’s involvement is the only major blemish, but that’s a recurring issue with showcase WWF matches. Rather than let the action in the ring speak for itself, they have to turn everything into a three-ring circus. Nevertheless, the action and intensity never let up, and both guys take man-sized bumps throughout, so this holds up as a workrate classic even though none of the offense would be considered high-end by today’s standards. ****1/2 

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The funny thing is, if you tried to predict the career trajectories of the Rockers based solely on this match, you’d probably guess that Jannetty would end up as the all-time legend and Michaels would be the answer to a trivia question.

When I was a kid, I totally thought this.  I also thought Neidhart would be the star to come out of the Hart Foundation.  

Yeah, I don't have much of an eye for talent, but you have to think that Neidhart would've dropped the belt to Jannetty without a screwjob if he was leaving for WCW.

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Riki Choshu vs. Yoshiaki Fujiwara (NJPW, 6/9/87) 

Fujiwara is best known as one of the pioneers of shoot style (in fact, the Fujiwara armbar is named after him), but this is more Memphis than UWF. In 1987, the main feud in New Japan was New vs. Now, with Fujiwara on Team OG and Choshu on Team New Jack. In this match, the two mix classic brawling with suplexes and submissions, making it feel like a no-holds-barred martial arts contest. Fujiwara has the greatest headbutt of all time, and he employs it liberally throughout this match. But more importantly, he’s responsible for tons of subtle moments that make this more than a garden-variety brawl. Like registering the damage from Choshu’s kicks but completely no-selling his punches to the head (like the Headshrinkers, he has a rock-hard skull in kayfabe). And grabbing Choshu’s leg to try to prevent him from stepping over and completing the scorpion deathlock. And the fabulous shit-eating grin on his face when he reverses a suplex attempt into his namesake armbar. And selling Choshu’s lariats by crumpling like a boxer who’s been knocked out rather than pro wrestling-style bumping. A final nifty element comes from Choshu at the end: he refuses to pin Fujiwara and chooses to win by knockout, as if to say “I’ve got your shoot style right here.” ****3/4 

Tatsumi Fujinami/Riki Choshu/Akira Maeda/Kengo Kimura/Super Strong Machine vs. Antonio Inoki/Yoshiaki Fujiwara/Seiji Sakaguchi/Kantaro Hoshino/Keiji Mutoh (NJPW, 8/19/87) 

My favorite aspect of 80s New Japan is the use of elimination tag matches to settle scores between factions. Eliminations can occur by pinfall, submission, or being thrown out of the ring, so it’s like a cross between a Survivor Series match and the Royal Rumble. Not only do the ring-outs add an additional dramatic wrinkle, they allow for believable eliminations of wrestlers you would never expect to get pinned or submit (*coughInokicough*). This is the climax of the New vs. Now feud, and it has everything you would ever want from this kind of match. The star power is off the charts, there’s not a shred of downtime, and there are plenty of dramatic eliminations and near-eliminations. There’s even some comedy revolving around Fujiwara’s exceptionally hard head. Maeda countering an Inoki flying headscissors by falling out of the ring with Inoki on his shoulders was the highlight of the match for me. When a wrestler, especially a heavy hitter like Maeda, is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of his team, it really shows how high the stakes are. If there is a significant flaw, it’s that the action is actually a bit too fast for anything to have room to breathe. Also, any suspense over the outcome was pretty well gone after Fujiwara’s elimination. Mutoh struggling valiantly against impossible odds was cool, but I would have liked to have seen him get a fluke ring-out elimination to make it less of a foregone conclusion. Choshu inciting a brawl between the eliminated members while Fujinami finished off Mutoh was almost as good, though. ****3/4 

Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Genichiro Tenryu (AJPW, 8/31/87) 

After Choshu returned to New Japan in early 1987, Baba decided to split up the Jumbo/Tenryu tag team and have them feud with each other. This is their first match of note against each other, and it’s a doozy. The opening minutes have a real “Mega Powers explode” feel, as neither guy wants to risk giving the advantage to his former partner turned rival. Interestingly, Tenryu seems to want to keep things on the mat while Jumbo wants to bash and bang, which is an inversion of what you would expect from the two. Tenryu isn’t the slickest mat worker, but the effort is there. The standout moment for me was when Jumbo was so enraged by Tenryu using his jumping knee that he really ramped up the violence, working Tenryu over with knees, stomps, even punches. There was quite a bit of sloppiness down the stretch, most notably on the crossbody spot that sent both of them to the outside. And the psychology of the ending seemed confused. While on the outside, Tenryu did a shinbreaker onto a table, hindering Jumbo from returning to the ring. I’m pretty sure the idea was that he was capitalizing on the injury to Jumbo’s right knee, which had run into an exposed turnbuckle earlier in the match. The only problem is that Tenryu targeted the left leg with the shinbreaker. I suspect that targeting the left side of the body was just too ingrained in his muscle memory. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts. Still, the crowd heat and magnitude of the personalities involved are enough to overcome any hiccups in execution. A worthy first chapter in their legendary rivalry. ****1/4 

Jumping Bomb Angels vs. Glamour Girls (WWF, 11/24/87) 

A classic women’s tag match in 80s WWF? Believe it. I tend to gravitate toward matches with style contrasts, and I love the contrast between the high-flying joshi team and the more conventional Southern-style heel tactics of the Glamour Girls. The match adheres closely to the traditional tag formula, but the action elevates it above all but the most high-end American tag matches of the period. With the way they fly off the ropes and bridge out of pins, the JBAs make even the most exciting American tag teams look slow and plodding. And Kai and Martin are no slouches when it comes to offense, busting out powerbombs and Gory specials to go along with their hair mares and womb stomps. The main thing that detracted from my enjoyment was the commentary, with Nick Bockwinkel doing his best Larry Zbyszko impression in burying the JBAs at every opportunity. Setting that aside, when you have a WWF crowd rocking for a women’s match, you know you’re doing something. ****1/4 

Jumbo Tsuruta/The Great Kabuki/Takashi Ishikawa vs. Ashura Hara/Toshiaki Kawada/Samson Fuyuki (AJPW, 3/11/88) 

This is the spiritual predecessor to the Jumbo/Misawa and NJPW/WAR feuds. It isn’t nearly as epic as later six-mans, but there’s still boatloads of stiffness, hatred, cheap shots, chair-swinging, and all the other things that make life worth living. The bulk of the match consists of Jumbo’s team working over Fuyuki, with a jaw-dropping punch combo from Kabuki being a particular highlight. Jumbo is by far the biggest star in this match, so his interactions with his opponents set the tone. He gives them enough space to show fire and fight back, but he also doesn’t hesitate in bringing them back down to earth and reminding them that he’s the ace. His interactions with Hara are especially fascinating. Hara is too high up in the promotional hierarchy for Jumbo to simply manhandle but not high enough to confront Jumbo as an equal, so Jumbo mostly avoids engaging him directly and limits himself to holding Hara back when he tries to break up pins and submissions. Things go off the rails a bit with all the nearfalls in the finishing stretch, but everything before then is golden. ****1/4 

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6 hours ago, JNLister said:

Don't know how many of them are any good, but there's four different JBA-Glamour Girls matches on Prime Time Wrestling in 87-88 on the Network (plus the Royal Rumble match) and a Tateno-Kai singles match.

When I watched them all a few years back the one that really stood out besides the MSG match was from Boston Garden 3/5/88. Not sure how readily available it is these days but it's definitely a very good match and worth tracking down 

Edit: I see now that it's one of the Prime Time matches, 5/16/88

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Lex Luger/Barry Windham vs. Arn Anderson/Tully Blanchard (NWA, 3/27/88) 

This is on the short list of greatest sub-10-minute matches in history, a tag match stripped down to its essential elements. No initial feeling out or stalling, just two teams going at it with all guns blazing. What made Arn and Tully such a great tag team is that they realized that true suspense comes not from the damage inflicted on the FIP but from his struggle to make the tag. In most classic Japanese tags, the guy getting worked over is usually successful on his first attempt to tag out, but he at least quickly bursts over to his corner to minimize the suspension of disbelief necessary. The tendency in most modern matches for the FIP to hit one big move or counter and then slowly crawl to his corner just feels blatantly phony and scripted. And don’t even get me started on simultaneous tags. By contrast, when Arn and Tully work someone over, the FIP (Windham in this case) constantly fends them off and tries to make it to his corner, but they always cut him off at the last moment-that is, until they don’t. Speaking of Windham, it should be clear by now that I mark out for spots with a real sports feel, and Windham taking advantage of his height to fall toward his corner for the hot tag is a prime example. With all that said, this match wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable without the incredible sustained crowd heat. I usually have enough tunnel vision to be able to focus on the action in the ring without the audience affecting me one way or another, but when the crowd is this hot for this long, it can’t help but have an impact on the viewer. ****1/2 

Stan Hansen vs. Genichiro Tenryu (AJPW, 7/27/88) 

This might be the single greatest ass-kicking performance of Hansen’s career, which is saying something considering it’s Hansen we’re talking about. A lot of the time when a wrestler jumps his opponent before the bell, we're supposed to just accept the other guy not defending himself as creative license. In this case, Tenryu is being swarmed on the way to the ring, so it’s actually believable that he wouldn’t see Hansen coming or be able to react if he did. Once the bell rings, Hansen employs every punch, kick, elbow, and knee in his arsenal to beat Tenryu within an inch of his life. As I said earlier, I tend to zone out when beatdowns go too long, but Hansen’s attacks are varied enough and the hope spots are frequent enough to prevent it from becoming tedious. Just as importantly for me, it’s all strikes and impact moves with no chinlocks or bearhugs or the like, making it feel more like a real-life assault than a pro wrestling heat segment. This match is actually less one-sided than I remembered it being, and the transition to Tenryu’s comeback is quite brilliant. After Hansen signals for the lariat, Tenryu catches him coming in with a knee to the gut like he was countering Bald Bull’s bull charge in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. From that point on, Hansen’s ribs are his Achilles’ heel, which makes sense. After all, even monsters need oxygen, and if your ribs are damaged, the act of breathing is so painful that it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. I don’t really care for most of Hansen’s early-to-mid 80s work due to him not being a very giving seller unless he was in the ring with the guy who was signing his checks. But his selling here is impeccable, and the vulnerability adds another dimension to his character that makes his work much more compelling. As for the ending-yeah, it sucks. But it’s actually significantly less awful than most 80s Japanese finishes. I have no idea how audiences in Japan were able to tolerate this crap for as long as they did. Thank God for the UWF. ****1/4 

Masa Saito/Riki Choshu/Super Strong Machine/Kuniaki Kobayashi/Hiro Saito vs. Tatsumi Fujinami/Yoshiaki Fujiwara/Kengo Kimura/Shiro Koshinaka/Keiichi Yamada (NJPW, 9/12/88) 

This is a career performance from Fujinami. He usually comes across as skilled or tough, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look as dangerous as he does here. Seeing him destroy fools with dragon backbreakers and dragon sleepers rather than catching them off guard with leg roll clutches is a bit of a shock. But then, there’s good reason for him to be pissed considering who he’s up against. In an elimination tag the previous year (which I haven’t been able to track down, unfortunately), Masa Saito busted Fujinami open by ramming him into an exposed turnbuckle and went out his way to torture Fujinami in the closing stretch. That history is paid off when Fujinami ends up alone against Choshu and Saito. While Fujinami is fighting Choshu, you can see Saito removing the padding from his team’s corner in the background. They end up botching Choshu’s elimination, but they do a good job of covering for it. Once it’s down to a one-on-one situation, Saito tries to make history repeat himself, but Fujinami turns the tables and Saito is the one who gets busted open. Fujinami pummeling a bloody Saito is harrowing stuff, and the ending with Fujinami accidentally eliminating himself is a total gut punch in the best way. Overall, this match has the opposite problem as the 8/19/87 elimination tag. Rather than being too compressed, it’s too bloated. It's practically impossible to have dead time in a match like this, so it's never boring, but there are stretches that feel rather aimless. Seeing a pre-Liger Yamada is pretty cool, but I absolutely hated how he threw everything but the kitchen sink at Kobayashi only for Kobayashi to get a pin off a rollup. If you combined the best elements of this and 8/19/87, you’d have an indisputable five-star classic. As it is, we have two somewhat flawed but still awesome matches. ****1/2 

El Dandy vs. Pirata Morgan (EMLL, 9/23/88) 

Among American fans, El Dandy is remembered mainly as a punchline in a Bret Hart promo. That’s unfortunate, because in his prime, he was one of the greatest technical wrestlers who ever lived. You shouldn’t expect much technical wrestling in an 80s hair match, though, especially when a psychopath like Pirata Morgan is the opponent. Morgan’s punches are Memphis-caliber, and he nails Dandy in the throat with a clothesline that would make Dynamite Kid wince. Biting Dandy’s bloody forehead and spitting the blood into the air like Kabuki mist is about as ghoulish as pre-FMW wrestling gets. I’ve seen people question Morgan repeatedly pinning Dandy only to pick him back up at two, but I thought it was perfect heeling. He’s such a psycho that he’d rather keep torturing his opponent than take the win in a high-stakes hair match, which makes you want to see him get his comeuppance that much more. All the bullshit with the rudo referee cutting off Dandy’s comebacks by preventing him from throwing punches annoyed the hell out of me, but at least it was paid off nicely when Dandy made his comeback with a clothesline. There was also a cool moment in the third fall when Dandy took advantage of the referee being on the outside of the ring by punching Morgan in the face. Dandy was known as one of the first luchadores to study NJPW and UWF tapes and try to incorporate what he saw into lucha, and you can see the New Japan junior influence with his diving headbutts and German suplex. There wasn’t much in the way of long-term selling in the third fall, but I’m willing to accept that as part of the style as long as the fall isn’t absurdly long. In all, a classic lucha bloodbath. ****1/2 

Stan Hansen/Terry Gordy vs. Genichiro Tenryu/Toshiaki Kawada (AJPW, 12/16/88) 

Man, Kawada in leopard print tights doing high-flying junior spots has to be the epitome of early installment weirdness. So I have to say that I was surprisingly underwhelmed by this match this time around. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an all-time classic. But this was one of the matches I figured was an absolute lock for five stars at the beginning of this project, and it didn’t quite reach that level for me. The main problem is that it felt like a tale of two matches. For the first ten minutes or so, there was plenty of action and stiffness but not a whole lot of direction. Things really picked up once Hansen broke up a Kawada German suplex by kicking his leg out of his leg. From that point on, Hansen and Gordy added strategy to their violence. When they weren’t double-teaming Tenryu, the illegal man was doing more damage to Kawada’s leg on the outside. “Wrestler fighting against impossible odds after his partner has been taken out” is one of my favorite All Japan tag wrestling tropes, and Tenryu’s work when fighting from underneath was virtually flawless. Even then, there were a few off notes. There’s a spot near the end where Gordy was just kind of chilling in the corner for a bit before breaking up a Tenryu powerbomb and hitting one of his own. It came across like he was waiting to hit his spot rather than reacting like someone would in an actual contest. Also, I thought Hansen recovered a bit too quickly from Tenryu’s powerbomb. He redeems himself with the match-ending lariat, which is brutal even by Hansen standards. I hate to sound nitpicky about such an obviously great match, especially since the last half is transcendent stuff. I just thought it took too long to get there. ****3/4 

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Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat (WCW, 2/20/89) 

Anything you can say about Flair/Steamboat has been said several times over at this point, so I’ll just say that this is basically a perfect one-fall NWA-style tittle match. In fact, given the abbreviated length, it’s almost like a title match on fast-forward. None of the offense would be considered cutting-edge even by 1989 standards, but it still feels like an epic championship bout due to the effort and conviction behind everything. In particular, all the chops thrown sound like gunfire. One of my favorite aspects of Flair title defenses is his ability to play to his opponent’s strengths in the opening minutes. Against a technician like Steamboat, he gets schooled on the mat. Against someone like Lex Luger, he gets overpowered. Against a Ron Garvin, he gets overwhelmed by chops. It’s like he’s a jack of all trades and master of none, but he’s so full of himself that he wants to show that he can beat his opponents at their own game and pays the price. In most longer Flair matches, the leg work culminating in the figure-four is a time sink that isn’t really paid off in a satisfying way. That sort of thing is kept to a minimum here due to the shorter length, which works to the match’s advantage. Instead, Flair focuses on chops, suplexes, and underhanded tactics like pin attempts with his feet on the ropes. It’s kind of amusing how you can practically feel the air sucked out of the building after the ref bump. The crowd clearly expects a Dusty finish or some other kind of screwjob, so the pop when Steamboat is declared the winner is one of genuine elation and not just a Pavlovian reaction to a babyface triumph. It’s also interesting to compare this match to Savage/Steamboat at WM3. If you didn’t already know going in, you most likely wouldn’t be able to tell which match was rehearsed beforehand and which one was called on the fly. Steamboat could make the planned look spontaneous and the unplanned look as precise as clockwork. He really was on another level as a worker. ****3/4 

Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat (WCW, 4/2/89) 

If such a thing as a universal wrestling canon exists, this match would undoubtedly be a part of it. As such, I would imagine that every serious wrestling fan has seen and has an opinion on it. I’ve tended to go back and forth between whether this or Chi-Town Rumble is my favorite match of the trilogy (with Wrestlewar a distant third). When I’ve gravitated toward the Rumble match, it was because I thought it was tighter and less bloated, due largely to my aversion for matches that go longer than 30 minutes. But now, I can’t deny that the story told in the Clash match is far richer and more rewarding. In fact, this is one of the few long matches I would say wouldn’t significantly benefit from going shorter. I really like how Flair keeps going for pin attempts when he’s in an advantageous position. After all, why would you let a guy off the mat just because he lifted his shoulder up? If nothing else, you’re forcing him to expend energy by kicking out repeatedly. It’s something I usually just don’t think about, but when I see this, I think “Hey, why doesn’t everybody do that?” Whatever flaws this match has are common to all long Flair matches. Some of the spots are pretty repetitive, but that can’t be helped when you’re going nearly an hour and calling it in the ring. Also, the use of extended submission holds is a bit of an anachronism. You can’t call the figure-four a resthold since they’re clearly not resting in it, but they do sit in it for an unrealistically long time. But that’s a reflection of fans in the pre-UFC era not being educated about submissions. And those issues are hardly worth getting worked up over when a match goes 56 minutes and never drags. Most matches that are half as long aren’t paced nearly as well. And I appreciated how all the leg work was paid off at the end when Steamboat’s leg buckled. I’m a strong advocate of Chekov’s Gun, and body part work in wrestling doesn’t pay off nearly as often as it should. One final note of interest: they subtly foreshadow Terry Funk coming back to challenge Flair several times throughout the match. They never beat you over the head with it, but it’s a pretty cool Easter egg to go back and discover. ****3/4 

Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Genichiro Tenryu (AJPW, 6/5/89) 

When people speak of innovation in wrestling, they usually refer to spots or gimmicks. What Jumbo and Tenryu did here was innovate a completely new style of working a match. The Tiger Mask/Dynamite Kid matches are frequently referred to as a series that broke the mold, but what is often overlooked is that the pacing and structure were just as revolutionary as the moves. In a similar vein, none of the spots here are new, but the way they combined mat wrestling, brawling, complex strike-based exchanges, and learned psychology while working a lengthy title match at the pace of a Choshu-style sprint was pretty well unprecedented. I liked how Tenryu would modify a kneebar to turn it into a pinning predicament one moment and simply punch Jumbo’s knee the next. You can't expect a first draft to be perfect, so there are some kinks to be worked out. For one thing, there are a few instances where they release holds for no real reason other than it was time to move on to the next spot. Also, I thought they overused feet on the ropes to break up pins. But those only stand out as flaws relative to the classic Triple Crown matches of the 90s. If the Flair/Steamboat matches were largely a tribute to wrestling’s past, this provides a glimpse at its future. While the Four Corners would go on to expand upon and refine the blueprint provided here, Jumbo and Tenryu truly paved the way. ****3/4 

Lex Luger vs. Ricky Steamboat (WCW, 7/23/89) 

Luger threatening to walk out unless the no-DQ stipulation was waived is the best kind of bait and switch because the resulting match is far better than a no-DQ Luger/Steamboat match likely would have been. And it’s not like anyone who hoped to see a bloody brawl was shortchanged because Flair/Funk more than delivered on that front. Luger may have been lazy and useless in the later part of his career, but he had his working boots on here. This match is constant action and motion with Luger really laying in his clotheslines and Steamboat his chops. Luger yelling at Tommy Young to count faster immediately followed by Young providing a fast count on a Steamboat rollup was pure chef’s kiss. Young preventing Steamboat from throwing a punch followed by Luger punching Steamboat while he was restrained was too reminiscent of a Mexican rudo ref spot for my liking, but they made up for it when Luger threatened Young shortly afterward. The guy did you a favor, albeit inadvertently, and that’s how you repay him? More than anything, this match shows that wrestling doesn’t have to be rocket science. Have a simple but smart structure in place, lay your shit in, and keep things moving and you’ll hit the mark every time. ****1/2 

Ric Flair vs. Terry Funk (WCW, 7/23/89) 

I’ve always thought this was far superior to their I Quit match. But then, I’ve never really cared for the I Quit gimmick. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to have a brawl, just brawl. There’s no need to constantly break up the action with one wrestler yelling “SAY IT!” followed by the other wrestler yelling “NOOOOOOO~!” and then the first wrestler hitting the second in the head with the microphone. Here, all the violence is served straight with no gimmick chaser. Between terrorizing Tommy Young, trying to pick a fight with seemingly every fan in the front row, and attempting to piledrive Flair on the concrete, Funk is at his psychotic best. In the hands of a lesser talent (which is to say, virtually every other wrestler who ever lived), selling a piledriver by spinning around like Curly from the Three Stooges and trying to crawl out of the arena on his hands and knees would take the edge off a supposed top heel. But Funk carries such an air of malice about him that his comedic mannerisms serve to make him even more sinister. For Flair, this match is another bullet point in his candidacy for GOAT. Being able to go from NWA-style heel champion to Sammartino-esque fighting babyface champion without missing a beat shows tremendous versatility. Also, this is about as far from a Flair formula match as you can get. Even signature spots like the face-first flop and the flip over the turnbuckle are entirely absent. And it’s not simply due to him working babyface, because he used them as sympathy spots in his Starrcade match with Vader. I was on the fence over whether I could give this the full five, but then I noticed something in the ending sequence that put it over the top for me. When Funk reversed the figure-four into a small package, Flair grabbed Funk’s left leg to prevent him from hooking both legs to complete the move and allow Flair to reverse into a small package of his own for the win. I love subtle details that make wrestling seem like an actual sport, even if they fly over the heads of the fans in the cheap seats. I rate this as the best brawl of the 80s, which is no mean feat considering it was a decade full of awesome brawls. ***** 

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Jushin Liger vs. Naoki Sano (NJPW, 8/10/89) 

As wrestlers continually raise the bar for athleticism, spots that were once spectacular become increasingly mundane, so matches designed primary as highspot showcases almost never hold up decades after the fact. High-end psychology, on the other hand, always stands the test of time. This match, known for Liger’s arm selling, is a case in point. What makes it work is Liger’s realization that selling a limb is about more than simply registering damage when that limb is attacked (although he does plenty of that as well, perhaps most notably when he collapses and scrambles for the ropes after a simple wristlock). The injury colors everything he does, from his ring positioning (note how he turns the left side of his body away from Sano when locking up) to how he applies holds (like when he performs a chinlock with his right arm instead of his left and then switches to a figure-four headscissors). This match also shows that targeting a body part doesn’t have to be about softening the opponent up for a submission. For Sano, the purpose of the arm work is to cut off Liger’s comebacks and open him up for high-impact moves. Another important aspect of the match is the fact that almost none of the attempts at high-risk maneuvers are successful. Sano puts his legs up to block a Liger dive from the top rope, and Liger sidesteps a Sano tope. It’s only later in the match after Liger is completely worn down that Sano is able to hit a plancha. High flying moves can be great, but they’re much more rewarding when they’re earned rather than taken for granted. I suppose some of the opening matwork was pretty dry and Liger’s nearfalls in the closing stretch weren’t really believable, but I’d still put this up against any IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match before or since. ****3/4

Hart Foundation vs. Brain Busters (WWF, 8/28/89) 

This is usually regarded as one of the top WWF tag matches of the era, but I imagine that few if any fans rate it as highly as I do. I guess what it comes down to is that the structural elements strongly appeal to me even if the action isn’t necessarily top-shelf (Neidhart’s wristlocks in particular were atrocious). First of all, I’d rather watch a well-done heel-in-peril segment than standard babyface shine. Humiliating the heels and posing while they roll out of the ring to take a breather may pop the crowd, but it’s poor strategy. There’s a bit of that in this match, but Bret and Anvil mainly concentrate on working Arn and Tully over and preventing them from tagging out. Cutting the ring in half and isolating opponents was the Hart Foundation’s stock-in-trade as heels, and there’s no reason to think that they’d forget how to do it just because they’ve turned babyface. I always hate it when a wrestler’s skill set is determined entirely by their alignment, like a wrestler who’s a technical wizard as a face but can’t beat anybody on the mat as a heel. Two, the referee was relatively lenient in enforcing tag rules, so there were more run-ins and double-teams than you would typically see in a WWF tag match. Always remember: the one save rule sucks. Third, I’ve already said my piece about the FIP single-handedly turning the tide with one big move or counter, so I really liked that Neidhart needed a cheap shot from Bret to give him the necessary space. Tully being so eager to prevent the tag that he accidentally pushed Neidhart closer to his corner was a nice touch as well. Between this, Warrior/Rude, and the Rockers/Rougeaus six-man, Summerslam 1989 is a strong contender for best WWF PPV of the 80s. ****1/4

Ultimate Warrior vs. Rick Rude (WWF, 8/28/89) 

Most people will tell you that Warrior’s best match was against Randy Savage at WM7, but think that match is only really a classic if you’re emotionally invested in the storyline with Macho Man and Elizabeth. I never was, so it never reached that level for me. I’ve always thought that this was a superior bell-to-bell match, if for no other reason than the fact that Warrior never talks to his hands. However, he does hit Rude with the championship belt in full view of the referee. But that’s OK because it leads to a classic rant from Jesse Ventura when Tony Schiavone makes a feeble attempt to justify the referee not calling for the DQ. That aside, Warrior’s offensive arsenal in this match is impressively varied. In addition to his usual repertoire of clotheslines and gorilla presses, he busts out multiple suplex and powerslam variations, a double axehandle from the top rope, Mongolian chops, and the same inverted atomic drop every Rude opponent does. Rude takes some big boy bumps to put all this over, and he’s no slouch in the offensive department either. Even his camel clutch and sleeper can’t be called restholds because there’s constant motion and struggle in the application. I have to say, a good amount of the offense in this match seems more appropriate for 90s All Japan than 80s WWF. Not only does Rude come dangerously close to inventing the ganso bomb, Warrior hits a German suplex off the second rope. Overall, this was a fast-paced 80s bombfest that left me thoroughly sports entertained. Warrior really should’ve been disqualified, though. ****1/2

Stan Hansen/Genichiro Tenryu vs. Jumbo Tsuruta/Yoshiaki Yatsu (AJPW, 12/6/89) 

Yatsu comes into this match nursing some kind of head injury, and he’s wearing headgear that has the unfortunate effect of making him resemble Cartman in the Special Olympics. With Hansen as an opponent, you can be certain that the headgear will be removed eventually. For the first ten minutes or so of this match, I was certain that I would end up rating it above the 1988 RWTL final, which I didn’t expect at all before I began this project. The two teams are more evenly matched than in the previous year, and they both have better chemistry with each other as reflected by their teamwork. In addition, the heat on Tenryu provides more of a clear direction. Sadly, the eventual heat segment on Yatsu and the subsequent one on Jumbo are both bogged down by excessive length. I mean, you can only stomp someone in the head for so long before it stops being interesting. Things thankfully pick back up after Yatsu reenters the fray with his head taped up, and his bulldog on Hansen on the concrete is a holy-shit moment. And unlike many high-profile All Japan matches, the outcome is largely in doubt until the very end. Tenryu is a force of nature throughout, as he seemingly doesn’t allow a single pin or tag attempt to go uncontested. If this were about five minutes shorter, it’d probably be the best match of the 80s bar none. As it is, it’s in the upper echelon. ****3/4

Bull Power vs. Otto Wanz (CWA, 12/22/89) 

That’s a lot of beef in the ring. Bull Power, of course, is Vader, and his offense was well on the way to being fully developed at this point. We see rabbit punches, clubbing blows, backfists, and running tackles. He also performs a tackle off the top rope and even does a sunset flip(!) at one point. For the most part, though, this is about as minimalist as it gets, as the action consists mainly of clubbering and a few restholds. The rhythm is also far more stop-start than in a typical American or Japanese match due largely to the round system and the use of ten-counts on knockdowns. If you can look past that, this definitely has the aura of a world title fight, and the Rocky II-style finish felt appropriate given all the punishment they had inflicted on each other. And both guys bleed, possibly hardway. Sometimes, that’s all you need. ****1/4 

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Vader vs. Stan Hansen (NJPW, 2/10/90) 

There’s stiff, there’s ungodly stiff, and then there’s eye-poppingly stiff. Yes, this is the match where an errant blow from Hansen causes Vader’s eye to pop out of its socket, although the swelling makes it much less gruesome than it sounds. But even without that bit of body horror, this is the hoss fight to end all hoss fights. There’s also a surprising amount of depth, as both men do a great job of varying their offenses and the transitions are strong throughout. It was amusing how the crowd realized that a DCOR finish was all but inevitable, so they audibly groaned whenever the action spilled to the outside and popped huge when they made it back in the ring. King Kong vs. Godzilla has likely never been more closely approximated in a wrestling ring. ****1/4

Rock & Roll Express vs. Midnight Express (WCW, 2/25/90) 

The definitive Southern tag match, which fittingly enough involves the two definitive Southern tag teams. To avoid any confusion, allow me to elaborate on what I mean by a Southern tag. It begins with a lengthy babyface shine where the heels are continually one-upped and humiliated but not necessarily placed in peril. The heels eventually gain the advantage through underhanded means, leading to a single FIP section. The FIP makes the hot tag after a mistake by the heels gives him a path to his corner, and the finish comes a minute or two afterward. Not every match in the style strictly adheres to that formula, but this one follows it to a T. I think that the shine in MX matches tended to go quite a bit longer than was necessary to get the fans behind their opponents, and this match is no exception. The FIP section, on the other hand (on Morton, of course) truly has it all: blind tags, double-team maneuvers, referee distraction, Cornette interference, the works. Morton arguably recovered a bit too quickly to assist Gibson in the finish, but at least it wasn’t some elaborate extended finishing run. ****1/2

Mitsuharu Misawa/Akira Taue/Kenta Kobashi vs. Jumbo Tsuruta/The Great Kabuki/Masanobu Fuchi (AJPW, 5/26/90) 

Misawa and his army vs. Jumbo and his army is probably the greatest feud of all time, and this is where it all began. The opening minutes are nondescript, but things pick up in a major way once Jumbo comes in and gives everybody a kick in the ass. After taking out Kobashi with a jumping knee, he explodes toward the Misawa team’s corner and cheapshots Misawa and Taue off the apron. Several minutes later, Misawa delivers a receipt when he elbows Jumbo off the apron, knocking him out for several minutes. When Jumbo recovers, he immediately goes on the warpath, leading to a pull-apart brawl. That’s about as great a “shit just got real” sequence as you’ll ever see. A good chunk of the match is dedicated to Kabuki and Fuchi working over Kobashi’s arm and leg, but it never feels like he’s in any real danger. Fuchi has yet to reach peak Fuchi in terms of viciousness, but he shows glimpses when he pummels Taue with mounted punches and drops Kobashi knee-first onto a ringside table. Speaking of Taue, he does little more than make saves for his team, so it’s probably for the best that he got moved to Jumbo’s side after Yatsu jumped to Tenryu’s SWS. The rapid-fire nearfalls at the end felt more suited for a workrate junior tag than a six-man grudge match, but the mix of out-of-control violence and classic tag structure is already in place. All that remained was for the supporting players to step up and match the intensity of Jumbo and Misawa. ****1/2

Stan Hansen vs. Steve Williams (AJPW, 6/5/90) 

I’m not at all a fan of Doc’s overall body of work. He could put together exciting finishing stretches, but the meat of his matches was usually duller than dishwater. Miracle Violence Connection tags might be the greatest cure for insomnia ever invented, a tragic waste of an such an awesome team name. This match is a different story, a gritty brawl with hardly any letdown. Replacing soporific half crabs and front facelocks with punches and knees is a winning formula in my book. I loved how whoever was getting worked over would constantly try to create separation and throw shots when his opponent closed the distance. This is one of the few matches where Hansen works primarily from underneath, and he’s surprisingly great at it. He never blows off selling to get his shit in, and all his reversals of momentum are earned and fleeting. Even the match-ending lariat felt like a desperate last gasp. Kudos to both men. ****1/4

Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Jumbo Tsuruta (AJPW, 6/8/90) 

This is a match where the historical importance makes it impossible to evaluate strictly bell-to-bell, but the work in the ring mostly holds up. I love how Jumbo takes Misawa to the woodshed in the opening minutes. Then, having demonstrated to his satisfaction that this young punk isn’t in his league, he decides to take it home since he’s not getting paid by the hour. However, Misawa reverses the backdrop, allowing him to begin his initial comeback. See, wrestling works much better when wrestlers incur a penalty for going for their finishers too early. I also dug the contrast between Jumbo’s 80-style heavyweight offense and Misawa’s aerial attacks. One of the things that puts Jumbo in the GOAT conversation is his ability to make even basic offense seem devastating. When he connected with a lariat, it sounded like he was swinging a baseball bat. Misawa hasn’t made the complete transition to heavyweight style at this point, but he has added the elbow, which was established as Jumbo’s kryptonite in the six-man match two weeks previous, to his arsenal. However, both guys are mostly on cruise control in the middle part of the match, and I found Jumbo’s overuse of Irish whips tiresome. I actually wish they had spent more time on the mat, which is something I almost never think about a match. They pick things back up for a hot finish, which leads me to believe that they had the beginning and end worked out and were playing the middle by ear. I’ve always found Misawa’s stoicism more relatable than the over-the-top histrionics of most top wrestlers, but this is one occasion where I wish he had shown more emotion. Pinning Jumbo clean warrants a bigger reaction than “That was 3? Oh, cool.” Still, Kawada and Kobashi carrying Misawa on their shoulders while the crowd chants his name always puts a lump in my throat. ****3/4 

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Vader vs. Riki Choshu (NJPW, 8/19/90) 

Even at this early stage of his career, Vader was the absolute master of the no-bullshit 10-to-15 minute slugfest, which may be the greatest style of wrestling ever devised, all things considered. It may not hit the heights of a 30+-minute epic, but it’s also a lot less likely to go off the rails. You can definitely tell that Vader cut his teeth in the AWA with the way he works a king of the mountain segment. You know what, I think the king of the mountain spot is ripe for a return to pro wrestling. It’s a far more interesting way of passing time than an extended hold, and overcoming an opponent with the high ground makes anybody look like a badass. Truth be told, Vader’s performance was such that he could have had this match with just about anybody and it would have been entertaining, but Choshu held up his end enough to make this a classic title bout. Making a comeback by punching Vader’s injured eye was pretty nuts, and Choshu chopping down his opponent with lariats always feels like a major accomplishment. This makes you wonder what they could have done had they met in their respective primes (a few years later in Vader’s case and a few years earlier in Choshu’s). ****1/4 

Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Jumbo Tsuruta (AJPW, 9/1/90) 

As in June, the opening minutes brilliantly set the tone for both the match and the rivalry as a whole. Both wrestlers try to throw elbows on rope breaks but are blocked, showing the respect Jumbo has developed for Misawa’s elbow. Unfortunately, also as in June, they spend the next several minutes stuck in first gear. In fact, the lack of selling makes it even worse, as it feels like they’re aimlessly trading moves. The turning point, both in the match and arguably in All Japan as a whole, comes about 14 minutes in when Jumbo counters a Misawa diving headbutt with a facebuster. Misawa had employed that move to great effect both in June and earlier in this match, so we begin to see the learned psychology that would become one of the hallmarks of King’s Road. There’s another example shortly afterward when they redo the backdrop pinfall reversal sequence from the end of the June match, only with the roles reversed. The most notable moment of the match comes when Jumbo loses his cool and goes HAM on Misawa, even wasting him with a chair on the outside. When Misawa returns to the ring, Jumbo chucks him right back out to a chorus of boos. All Japan didn’t really do angles as such, so that’s the closest we got to an actual Jumbo heel turn. He starts wrestling rougher and more disrespectfully from that point, even throwing headbutts late in the match. Huge moment at the end when Misawa kicks out of a backdrop. He tries to go back to the elbow, but Jumbo cuts him off with a monster lariat and puts him away with a bridging backdrop. If the June match showed that Misawa couldn’t be taken lightly, this one established him as a peer even in losing. Both matches are close to equal, but I prefer the former one by the slimmest of margins because the big moments in it stand out as bigger to me even though Misawa was more comfortable working as a heavyweight in September. ****3/4 

Mitsuharu Misawa/Toshiaki Kawada/Kenta Kobashi vs. Jumbo Tsuruta/Akira Taue/Masanobu Fuchi (AJPW, 10/19/90) 

This is the first six-man with the classic lineup, and it’s my favorite of the bunch. It provides the most bang for the buck with 25 minutes of action and violence without a trace of downtime. It helps that all the players are established in their respective roles. Jumbo and Misawa are the leaders of their squads. Fuchi is the aging junior technician who can’t take on the young heavies straight-up but can do plenty of damage after they’ve been softened up. Taue is his side’s designated cheapshot artist/punching bag. Kawada is Misawa’s #2 and has made it his mission to make Taue’s life a living hell. Kobashi is the fresh-faced youngster trying to prove that he can hang with the big boys. This match is best-known for the work on Kobashi’s broken nose, including Fuchi ramming a chair into Kobashi’s face, but the setup is just as impressive. When Kobashi has Taue in a half crab, Fuchi tries to break it up by punching Kobashi in the face. When the referee orders Fuchi out of the ring, Jumbo comes in to finish the job, but Kobashi cuts him off with a lariat. A couple minutes later, Jumbo comes in off a tag and breaks Kobashi’s nose with the mother of all receipts. Jumbo’s lariat is now established as a killer move, so Kawada ducking one and countering with a spin kick gets a huge reaction. Speaking of Kawada, Taue knocking him off the apron at the beginning is paid off when Kawada runs in to break up a Taue abdominal stretch. A little bit later, the two are brawling on the outside and Kawada tries to slam Taue on the floor, but Taue turns the tables and ends up slamming Kawada. But they’re still not done, as Kawada would end up suplexing Taue on the floor. Building up and delivering on multiple simultaneous storyline threads, with plenty of twists and turns along the way, is what makes these matches tick. Body part work in these matches tends to be filler, so it was awesome to see Jumbo pay off the earlier rib work on Misawa by cutting him off late with knees to the gut. Matches hardly ever deliver on as many levels as this one. ***** 

Steiners vs. Nasty Boys (WCW, 10/27/90) 

These are two teams who are at their best when they have free rein to take liberties with their opponents, and since neither side is afraid to dish it out or take it, this is a match made in heaven. It also has a lot more structure than a typical Steiner Brothers match. There are a few moments when the tension boils over, but for the most part, the wrestlers wait until the referee’s back is turned to unleash real mayhem (Rick whacking Sags with a chair especially stands out). The Nasty Boys working over Scott’s back was sound strategy even though their bearhugs and camel clutches weren’t exactly the stuff of a highlight reel. The finish shouldn’t have counted since Scott wasn’t the legal man, but I don’t believe in penalizing the wrestlers for the incompetence of the referee. Then again, with the way Knobbs got spiked on the frankensteiner, I can’t blame the ref for wanting to wrap it up. ****1/4

El Hijo del Santo vs. Brazo de Oro (UWA, 1/13/91) 

This is by far my favorite Santo apuestas match. In fact, for me, it stands alongside MS-1/Sangre Chicana as an exemplar of the style. It does deviate from the usual formula in that Santo is simply dominated straight-up in the first fall rather than falling victim to a Pearl Harbor job as Oro delivers a Hansen-tier beatdown with body shots, knees, and headbutts. Santo bleeding through his mask makes for a striking visual, although I’d rather not think about how he makes it happen. I greatly enjoyed Santo collapsing in exhaustion after his comeback sequence, making it a temporary burst of adrenaline as opposed to simple no-selling. Long-term selling usually isn’t much of a priority in lucha, but it’s always nice to see. After Oro gets busted open, his second Brazo de Plata wraps a towel around his head to stem the bleeding. Santo wrapping the bloody towel around his fist and then punching Oro in the face was an awesome spot. Other than that, my favorite spot of the third fall was Oro’s Greg Valentine-esque elbow drop. I also really liked Santo’s double stomp followed by a swanton bomb. Some of the transitions in the third fall were kind of wonky, but this was close to perfect otherwise. ****3/4 

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Toshiaki Kawada vs. Akira Taue (AJPW, 1/15/91)

The Holy Demon Army is one of the most storied tag teams of all time, so it’s easy to forget that they began the 90s as mortal enemies. Kawada took it hardest of all when Taue switched sides to join Jumbo’s squad, so all their interactions in tags and six-mans were driven by extreme animosity. This is their first singles match, and it’s the knock-down-drag-out affair you’d expect from the way they went at each other the previous year. Taue jumps Kawada as he enters the ring and they’re off to the races, brawling on the outside, ramming each other into the post and guardrail, and whacking each other with chairs. Once they get back in the ring, a bloody Taue focuses on picking apart Kawada’s leg. Taue’s leg work is a nice mix of conventional holds and violent stomping and ramming the leg into the post (there’s even the All Japan standby of the shin breaker onto a table), but the impact is lessened by Kawada making no real effort to sell unless his leg was being explicitly targeted. To be frank, it’s not one of his better selling performances, which admittedly for Kawada is an incredibly high bar. However, he makes up for it by repeatedly kicking Taue with his good leg whenever he was in a supine position. A war like this needs a brutal ending to cap it off, and Kawada’s rabbit lariat definitely fits the bill. He may as well have cracked Taue in the back of the skull with a baseball bat. As great as the epic Triple Crown matches were, I’m far from the only one who wishes All Japan featured more short heated brawls like this one. ****1/4 

Mitsuharu Misawa/Toshiaki Kawada/Kenta Kobashi vs. Jumbo Tsuruta/Akira Taue/Masanobu Fuchi (AJPW, 4/20/91) 

This is the most celebrated of the Jumbo/Misawa six-mans, and with good reason. It goes 50-ish minutes (the official time is 51:32, but the version I have is 48:34 bell-to-bell and there’s no clipping I could detect), it hardly ever drags, and something interesting happens virtually every minute. The first ten minutes alone contain more sublime moments than I could count, my favorite being Taue repeatedly knocking Kawada off the apron to the point where it becomes almost like a Family Guy-esque running gag. The way Jumbo applauded after the third one really put it over the top for me. However, there’s a noticeable dip in the action around 22 minutes in. Misawa’s team works Taue over seemingly forever and shows no real urgency in trying to put him away, nor does Taue show any in working from underneath. Only occasional run-ins from Jumbo and Fuchi break up the tedium. But if they lost me with that part of the match, they brought me right back with the Kobashi FIP section. Jumbo’s squad rips his leg to shreds, and he elevates the sense of peril with his frequent desperate attempts to tag out. Kobashi reversing a Fuchi suplex and crawling to his corner only for Fuchi to grab his ankle with the tag just out of arm’s reach is one of the greatest came-up-just-short spots you’ll ever see. But that leads to the second major problem with this match: Kobashi doesn’t sell the leg at all down the stretch. I guess he limps a little, but it doesn’t hinder him in any meaningful way. I don’t necessarily need every instance of body part work to lead to something, but when someone’s leg is targeted as intensely and for as long as Kobashi’s was, there has to be come kind of payoff. On a happier note, Kawada setting up the win for his team with a rabbit lariat was a brilliant payoff to Taue’s earlier dickishness. The flaws in this match are enough to place it clearly below 10/19/90, but it’s still easily above virtually every other wrestling match. One more thing: after watching the six-man matches with an analytical eye, I have to conclude that they make Fuchi look better than he really is. I don’t want to sound too denigrating because he’s one of the greatest of all time at working holds, has a pronounced sadistic streak, and clearly enjoys punching people in the face, all admirable qualities for a pro wrestler. But he also has the luxury of mainly coming in to torture opponents who’ve already been weakened and doesn’t have to spend much time selling or facing opponents at full strength. He’s kind of like a cleanup hitter whose RBI numbers are inflated because he always comes to the plate with runners in scoring position. ****3/4 

Vader vs. Keiji Mutoh (NJPW, 8/10/91) 

This match is famous for being the first instance of fans at Sumo Hall throwing pillows into the ring to show their appreciation for the match they just witnessed. I have no earthly idea why New Japan chose not to tape this, but whoever brought one of those unwieldy early 90s camcorders to the arena deserves our undying gratitude. Although this is another match that is marred somewhat by overuse of the Irish whip, it’s Vader’s career performance up to this point. I was amused by how shocked the crowd seemed to be by some of his offense. This was an audience that was by no means unaccustomed to stiff work, but Vader’s brutality was too much even for them. Perhaps just as much as his stiffness, one of Vader’s calling cards was his willingness to bump like a pinball for high-flying offense. For that reason, his best matches tended to be with athletic heavyweights who could withstand his abuse and were big enough to credibly throw him around. Mutoh fits the bill here, as would Sting and Misawa in later years. In the past, I had thought that Mutoh did too much no-selling during his comebacks, but this time I saw a clear progression in his selling with him taking longer to recover as the match progressed and he became more worn-down. Vader countering a handspring elbow with a German suplex/uranage combo was the spot of the match for me. I also really liked Mutoh’s desperate pin attempts at the end. Trying to go blow-for-blow didn’t work and neither did playing hit-and-run, so simply going for pins was the only arrow left in his quiver. ****1/2 

Keiji Mutoh vs. Masahiro Chono (NJPW, 8/11/91) 

I’m pretty lukewarm at best on both these guys, but this holds up as a classic. It’s like a 70s-style match in build and psychology but with more modern moves, and it’s surprisingly easy to watch for a match that goes nearly 30 minutes at a rather methodical pace. Other than an extended Muta lock/cattle mutilation in the middle, the chess match-style matwork never drags, and the transitions and escalations feel organic. There’s an incredible sequence in the late-mid portion when Chono hits a pair of piledrivers and goes for the STF, but Mutoh rolls to the outside to escape. Chono then tries to piledrive Mutoh on the mat, but he does a backdrop counter and ends up landing a piledriver of his own on the concrete. Not only is that the sequence of the match, it’s the point it really kicks into high gear. Some of the suplexes and submissions down the stretch felt like filler, and they botched an attempted dropkick counter to a missile dropkick and then immediately repeated it, which is never a good look. The ending turned out to be a pretty ingenious curveball. Mutoh had repeatedly tried and failed to land the moonsault, and Chono’s yakuza kick had been his Achilles’ heel the entire match. After finally countering a yakuza kick, he goes up for the moonsault again. Under traditional pro wrestling storytelling, that’s a signal that he’s going to hit it and get the win. But Chono counters by putting his knees up and wins with a powerbomb. While All Japan’s Four Pillars would end up leaving New Japan’s Three Musketeers (and everyone else, for that matter) in the dust, this is far more accomplished than any of the matches the Pillars would have with each other for at least a couple of years. ****3/4 

Mitsuharu Misawa/Toshiaki Kawada/Tsuyoshi Kikuchi vs. Jumbo Tsuruta/Akira Taue/Masanobu Fuchi (AJPW, 10/15/91) 

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of a team taking sheer sadistic glee in inflicting pain on their opponents. Misawa comes in with a busted nose that Jumbo immediately targets, putting him out of commission for basically the entire match. He’d return periodically and try to assert himself, but Jumbo’s squad would cut him off every time by zeroing in on his nose. As such, this quickly becomes a de facto 3-on-2 handicap match, and there are times when it more closely resembles an enhanced interrogation session at a CIA black ops site than a wrestling match. Jumbo and company even take the opportunity to bust out some unorthodox offense like a stomach claw and a Punjabi plunge. Pointing Kawada out to the referee to prevent him from interfering while freely interfering themselves was outstanding Japanese-style heeling. This is just competitive enough to be a fully realized match rather than a glorified squash, but Misawa’s team is never a serious threat to turn the tide. One final note: the amount of heel heat Taue got was unreal. The fans would still cheer for Jumbo and Fuchi even while booing their underhanded actions, but they booed Taue’s very existence like he was Vince McMahon in 1998. ****1/2   

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Dustin Rhodes/Ricky Steamboat vs. Enforcers (WCW, 11/19/91) 

Anderson and Zbyszko were originally set to defend the tag titles against Dustin and Barry Windham, but they put Windham out of action by breaking his hand at Halloween Havoc the previous month. But they have a mystery partner to take Windham’s place. It turns out to be Ricky Steamboat, last seen spitting hot fire (yes, literally) in the WWF. Surprise partners and opponents in wrestling almost always suck, but this one really delivered. Best of all was the Enforcers reacting like Dustin had brought out the Terminator as his partner. As for the actual match, I had thought it was close to tag team perfection in the past, but I found it surprisingly underwhelming this time around. I liked how Zbyszko set up a mini-FIP segment on Dustin by forcing his way to his corner to tag out while in an armbar. It was as if Dustin was so focused on working the arm that he neglected cutting the ring in half and Larry took advantage of his youth and inexperience. I don’t know if that was the intended idea, but it helps me enjoy the match more, so I’m going with it. The actual FIP segment on Steamboat is when they lost me a bit. They check all the boxes in the standard FIP formula, but it needed more violence and/or hope spots to stand out as a truly elite example. Tagless switches and partner-assisted abdominal stretches aren’t going to do much for me these days. Also, it was too brief to truly hit a fever pitch. Steamboat does his best to get the work over by selling like a soccer player trying to draw a red card, but it was so theatrical that it actually took me out of the match. I’d also like to talk about how much I despise the referee disallowing a blind tag because he didn’t see it spot.  When a tag team works an opponent over, they’re building tension, and that person executing a tag releases that tension. When the referee waves it off, they’re back at square one and have to build it up all over again. It’s especially egregious when the spot is preceded, as it almost always is, by the heels switching out without tagging behind the referee’s back with no repercussions. It’s one of those things that makes wrestling fans look like complete rubes because it blatantly insults the intelligence of the viewer. The finish was fantastically executed, although Steamboat was probably a bit too fresh after the beating he had absorbed. Not only did the Enforcers get caught off-guard by a blind tag after initially gaining the advantage with one, Zbyszko had his back turned just long enough to not see Steamboat about to hit the crossbody until it was too late. ****1/4  

Barry Windham/Dustin Rhodes vs. Steve Austin/Larry Zbyszko (WCW, 2/29/92) 

This is more restrained than Steiners/Nasties, but they do a similarly excellent job of working a crazy brawl within the strictures of a standard tag match. There are just enough sequences involving all four men going at it to add an element of chaos without a complete breakdown of structure. At its core, this is a double-FIP tag, and Windham’s is the better of the two. He takes some pretty nasty bumps throughout, including getting crotched on the guardrail. The eventual hot tag combines two of my favorite stock spots, the jawbreaker counter to a sleeper and Windham falling backwards to his corner to make the tag. The subsequent FIP segment on Dustin was a bit chinlock-heavy, but I loved the recurring element of Austin shutting him down with clotheslines. It’s just like any other sport. If there’s a play the other team can’t stop, you keep running it until they make you switch it up. Dustin finally countering by hitting Austin with his own stun gun was a superb payoff. This just needed some blood and international objects to really put it over the top. ****1/2

Stan Hansen vs. Toshiaki Kawada (AJPW, 4/6/92) 

So far in this project, there have been a few matches that haven’t done quite as much for me as they had in the past. This one had the opposite effect: it shot way up my list in a way I wasn’t expecting. It should come as no surprise that this is an absolute war from the get-go, as both men rush each other and show a willingness to absorb the other guy’s blows in order to get in a good shot of their own. It’s a style of claustrophobic brawling I find much more agreeable than two guys standing there and taking turns hitting each other with forearms. Kawada chopping Hansen down with off-balance leg kicks was especially great. A lot of opponents will target Hansen’s lariat arm, but going after his legs is a much smarter play because he’ll actually sell work on his leg. He’s so hobbled that it takes a powerbomb on the outside to give him a necessary breather. As the match progresses, there’s an increased emphasis on going for the knockout blow and countering the other man’s haymakers. Some excellent teases of the Western lariat near the end. I’m all but certain there’s never been a non-final Champion Carnival match anywhere near this good. ****3/4

Vader/Bam Bam Bigelow vs. Keiji Mutoh/Hiroshi Hase (NJPW, 5/1/92) 

Tag team wrestling was never a big deal in New Japan (at least, nowhere near as much as All Japan), so there are relatively few classic IWGP tag title matches. But this one is right near the top. The opening minutes are rather nondescript, although Mutoh and Hase suplexing the big men got a nice reaction. I also enjoyed the contrast between Vader’s style based around pure stiffness and Bigelow’s more American-style heel work with eye rakes and over-the-top bumping. Business picks up about ten minutes in after Bigelow rips the bandage off Hase’s head and he and Vader start teeing off on his forehead, leaving him a bloody mess in short order. This is notable for being one of the few competitive tag matches without a hot tag. After Hase manages to string together some offense against Vader and cuts off Bigelow’s attempted run-in, he and Mutoh double-team Bigelow and take him out by dropping him on the guardrail. From there, the match has a definite All Japan feel with Mutoh and Hase wearing Vader down with tandem offense while keeping Bigelow neutralized. There’s also an All Japan-esque shift in momentum initiated by Bigelow reversing an attempted double-team into a double DDT on the floor. From there, the tables are turned as Vader and Bigelow dispose of Mutoh (including gorilla pressing him onto a group of Young Lions) before finishing off Hase. ****1/2

Kenta Kobashi/Tsuyoshi Kikuchi vs. Doug Furnas/Dan Kroffat (AJPW, 5/25/92) 

This match is famous for the torture session the Can-Ams administer on Kikuchi in front of a molten hometown crowd. I’ve seen this described as a Southern-style tag, but I think it has too many distinctly Japanese elements to truly qualify. For one thing, all the double-teams and interference take place in plain view of the referee without any need for distraction since Japanese referees are far more lenient about enforcement of tag rules. In addition, when Kikuchi gets worked over, the drama is from the punishment he’s receiving rather than trying to tag out and being thwarted (there are only a couple of hope spots). However, the Can-Ams do engage in more overt heeling, like taunting the audience and arguing with the referee over the count, than is typical in Japanese tags. Interestingly, the closing stretch is largely a mirror image of the one in Vader/Bigelow vs. Mutoh/Hase, only with the roles reversed. The Can-Ams try to neutralize Kobashi so they can finish off Kikuchi with double-teams, but Kobashi DDTs Furnas on the outside, allowing him and Kikuchi to land double-teams of their own to set up the finishing run. Other than Kikuchi snapping on Kroffat like Ralphie on Farkus in A Christmas Story, not much of note happens in the opening minutes, but once the match reaches its climax, it’s about an intense and dramatic as wrestling gets. ****3/4 

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