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[2024-05-07-MeriPro] Kenichiro Arai vs Mikiya Sasaki

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Arai got the chance to do another Iron Man and, not shockingly, the match is similarly insanely high-quality. This is a long one.

Yes, this is 60 MINUTES long and in one of the smallest rings you could imagine as per KOBE standards. I watched it though because Arai is the master of long-form matches and knows how to pace such a daunting task just enough that you can get into them. The first 10/15 minutes are focused around Arai doing either really cool escapes out of holds or focusing on solid limb work via the arm, managing to use some wrist control to brilliantly keep control of the match by bending and wrenching it backwards in a WoS-lite sequence. Sasaki does well as the besieged opponent who occasionally gets in a hold or two before Arai finds a way to outsmart or slap on his own counter-hold in response. As the match goes on Sasaki drags out some advantage with cool homages to Inoki via the Cobra Twist and Indian Deathlock, forcing Arai to really painful positions. I thought he sold his frustrations fairly well as he goes out of the ring a couple of times to regroup and go for different plans each time, switching which part of the body he was focusing on or trying for different ways to catch his opponent out. There's also some nice focus on the two finding uniquely impressive pinning positions for the other, occasionally being able to squeeze out a near fall from technique alone rather than from just beating the other person up with strikes. They do some playing around with the usual foundations of these kind of Iron Man matches: the "fish out of water" spot is in the middle here instead of at the beginning typically as a cheap way to get the crowd interested: instead it stops abruptly in the middle and is used instead to further establish Sasaki's headscissors as one of the killer moves of the match, having Arai fail to escape the second one.

Rather than turn up the workrate after the beginning this grinds down immensely in the middle half, generally so that they can do a extended struggle in the headscissors, with numerous segments being dedicated to failing to escape/escaping and getting caught again in the same move. It actually works here through because this same move has been shown since the beginning to be a problem for Arai, so logically Sasaki is gonna go back to this again and again for maximum effect. Arai in turn sells it really well, stumbling around in confusion when he gets out, rallying the crowd to try to bowl over, rolling Sasaki up for pinfalls, etc etc. Arai finally gets out with this same rollup only modified slightly in that he scrapes his knees on his head lol. Sasaki's turn to leave comes with a major turning point in the match as he throws the first strikes at Arai in frustration and pays for it by getting caught in a arm-bind. In true tragic fashion Sasaki then just counters back into the headscissors lol. There's some nice added brutality as he also attempts to cover Arai's nose (! ) in an attempt to kill the guy. Eventually Arai is able to peel out bit by bit and stiffly slaps Sasaki in the face when he has the cheek to try to throw strikes to keep advantage. There's more focus on it even afterwards (namely when Arai tries to go for the side headlock over and over) but Sasaki and co slowly transition away from it as the main focus with other work. Them doing the Nishimura surfboard struggle sequence is uber based, thought them somehow managing to transition from that to a fancy pinfall while Arai was doing a handstand w/ arms locked was uniquely bizarre and brilliant at the same time.

Sasaki stays on the attack as he pulls out the Russian Leg Sweep and other hallmark classics to slowly grind down Arai with sleepers. They do the good old Kobashi/Steve Williams spot of Arai having the backdrop and Sasaki pushing himself off the ropes to cause a dub spot. Arai follows up with some pretty goofy second rope axe handles before getting caught with a shin breaker that he sells excellently. The next 5 minutes are completely focused on a figure-four struggle w/ Arai doing a super neat toe-hold counter to it at points using his shoulder and the exposed leg, but ultimately having to tap out when Sasaki switched to the Spinning Toe Hold instead; something he had stopped before but was clearly too fatigued to push him off this time in a good progression of what we'd seen before. Arai sells being spent real well as he hides in the corner and keeps escaping to the outside to recover and stall out proceedings. Sasaki then overcommits in a very clever spot where he runs at Arai hanging off the ropes before then getting thrown through the middle rope into the actual wall of the bar they are in (the ring is THAT small that you can do this spot legit, amazingly) which then gives his opponent the chance to desperately snap on a Cravat and pull for dear life. We get some energetic transitions while still keeping the hold until Arai hurls himself into the top turnbuckle in a really violent sell that even Bret would've been jealous of. In a ironic twist of fate Arai throws on this completely original corner headscissors that he coverts to the ground that shockingly gets the tap when Sasaki tries to escape and gets his neck stuck!

There's only three minutes on the clock so the two (literally) run through some spots like Arai missing a second rope back elbow etc etc. Sasaki grabs on a Cloverleaf and makes Arai tap just as the bell rings in a very well timed finish. All in all a fantastic match that proves once more that Arai is one of the best to ever do it when it comes to minimalism in wrestling, just a complete master of knowing how to get the most out of very little and equally knowing how to structure and pace a match that even the smallest of momentum changes feel legitimately earth-shattering. Dude really knows how to sell big when things got tense here as well. Sasaki deserves a ton of praise as well for someone who is barely on anyone's radar. Completely shocking that someone as obscure as him who mostly seems to be a nothing indie guy had all of this just bubbling under the surface, and it's made me definitely want to search out if he's got anything close to this level. If so, could be worth a deeper look. Not as epic as the 2023 GENTARO clinic (then again what could?) but absolutely a must-watch for any fan of this kind of methodical grappling. 

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