May 3, 2004.
We’re in Tokyo, Japan at the Big Egg. There was a time when New Japan ran the Dome more than once a year. This is one such time. It’s a fantastic little time capsule of a show. The main event is Shinsuke Nakamura challenging Bob Sapp for the IWGP title. The undercard has a couple of weird shoot-style matches and Hiroshi Tanahashi wrestles Sean O’Haire! I, for one, am excited to watch this. Some of the undercard is super wacky. The modern NJPW era may have provided us with great wrestling cards but they’re not at this level when it comes to wackiness.
Naomichi Marufuji, Heat & Tiger Mask IV vs. Koji Kanemoto, Ultimo Dragon & American Dragon
Ultimo had just left WWE after a very disappointing run. AmDrag aka Daniel Bryan is nearing the end of his three-year stint in NJPW to focus on ROH.
This is a fairly young Marufuji. Still tearing up the juniors with KENTA and before his ROH appearances. It’s a wonderful combination of talents and Tiger Mask. Danielson and Marufuji have some lovely chemistry, right off the bat. No wonder they worked in ROH together. The pacing is somewhat sluggish and Ultimo has a terrible match. That WWE run just knocked the stuffing out of him. TM and UD are basically passengers here while everyone else has a match around them. Kanemoto is great. He does a Falcon Arrow and transitions right into an anklelock from the resultant kick out. Danielson, as expected, is really tight and tidy.
The match mostly suffers from poor crowd reaction. Either the noise disappearing into the heavens of the Big Egg or the crowd just doesn’t give a shit. Danielson picks up the win with a cradle backdrop suplex on Heat. He looked terrific and deserved the win. It’s a tidy reminder that ROH was dead good in 2004. As was NOAH, which is represented by Marufuji.
Final Rating: ***3/4
Makai Club vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Shinya Makabe & Osamu Nishimura
Makai Club have added “Giant Majin”, which is this enormous Japanese guy who fucking sucks. He’s 6’11” though, which makes for quite the visual. “Big boy eh?” – Makabe of the newcomer. Giant Majin competed once for New Japan, clearly not winning any fans, and ended up in WWE developmental. He wrestled in FCW as Giant Titan. Makai Club is one of my least favourite stables and this is absolutely the death of it. Going from a bunch of masked shooters who believe in Inokism to big lunks in masks doing shit wrestling. The match is horrendous. Just skip it. Makai Club win. The whole angle would be dead and buried by the end of the summer.
Final Rating: ½*
Katsuhiko Nakajima vs. Jushin Liger
Nakajima is in his rookie year but has evaded the black trunks and is wearing super babyface white. He debuted for World Japan a few months before this and this is his first match for NJPW. Compared to modern Nakajima he’s completely unrecognizable. He glowed up.
Nakajima shows a lot of fighting spirit and Liger is the kind of guy who’s 100% willing to get the kid over and sell for him. Even when it becomes clearly apparent that Liger is, at this stage of their careers, by far the better pro wrestler. Kensuke Sasaki joins us at ringside to cheer Nakajima on. Something that would continue for the bulk of his career. Liger wins anyway with a young lion killing Boston crab. This was fine but not the dream match it could have been years later when Nakajima had matured.
Final Rating: **3/4
Ken Shamrock vs. Josh Barnett
Given the participants they do this shoot style. It’s a very early pre-cursor to Bloodsport. Given the reviews at the time the world was not ready for it. It doesn’t help that Shamrock wants to roll around on the mat for most of the match. It has these little flashes of a good match like Shamrock’s takedown right into a heel hook or Barnett getting a throw in but so much of it is tedious and a chore to sit through. A little like most of Shamrock’s MMA career or his tweets about Covid-19. It improves marginally as they throw strikes but it’s unrealistic. They don’t even have a finish as the ref gets bumped and Shamrock gets disqualified. What a complete waste of time.
Final Rating: DUD
Post Match: Shamrock challenges Barnett to a “no rules” rematch. How do you win a match with no rules? I assume this fell through because it never happened. Based on how bad this was I understand the urge to not go through with it.
Dolgorsuren Serjbudee & Dolgorsürengiin Sumyaabazar vs. Genichiro Tenryu & Meng
Serjbudee is better known as Blue Wolf so I’ll be calling him that. Sumyaabazar is Blue Wolf’s brother. He was an Olympian wrestler and MMA fighter. He got beat by Bob Sapp a few months before this show. Blue Wolf is fine as he’s a trained wrestler. The other guy? Less so. He doesn’t seem to understand anything but especially selling. Tenryu gives him at least three death stares for being in the wrong place or doing the wrong thing. At one point he walks around looking confused for ages and gets a chair so Tenryu throws himself at the poor bastard and flattens him at ringside! He botches a tag in and if I’m Meng, he’s getting fucked up. Blue Wolf tags back in and finishes Meng off with the Mongol Hammer. I have no idea what they were thinking here. Sumyaabazar didn’t go into wrestling after this and was clearly not suited to it anyway. Another in the latest of wacky ideas from NJPW that went nowhere.
Final Rating: *
Kensuke Sasaki & Manabu Nakanishi vs. Yuji Nagata & Kendo Kashin
I was embracing the wackiness at the start of the show but now I just want a decent match. Hopefully, this is the collection of gentlemen for the job. And also Kendo Kashin! Nagata and Nakanishi’s opening strong style forearm exchange is better than anything all these MMA dweebs were doing all night. There’s also a running gag of Kendo not wanting to tag in because he wants none of this. When he does tag in Nakanishi tries to kill him like a normal person tries to kill an annoying fly. Nagata is also tremendous here. He takes a beating and does this incredible ‘attempted no sell’ where he looks to fire up and just can’t because he’s fucked. Looking back on this era it always annoys me that they didn’t pull the trigger on Nagata for an extended run on top because he was so much better than who they were pushing. He had the belt for over a year so it’s not like they didn’t give him that big push but it wasn’t sustained and everyone who tried to take his spot came up short in my opinion. Kendo’s antics during this grow on me. He punts Nakanishi in the balls, throws powder in his face and holds Sasaki back as Nagata polishes his mate Nak off with the Backdrop Driver. Good match! I can see how some people might not rate the Kashin stuff but it worked for me.
Final Rating: ***1/4
As we come back Antonio Inoki is introduced.
He’s going to sit ringside and watch the rest of the show.
IWGP Tag Team Championship
Minoru Suzuki & Yoshihiro Takayama (c) vs. Masahiro Chono & Kazunari Murakami
Suzuki vs. Murakami is a shoot style match up. Despite the players it’s not great. There’s also a jarring contrast of Chono throwing hands like a pro wrestler during Attitude Era. Chono was one of my favourite New Japan guys in the 90s but watching him 2004 is quite painful. He deteriorated. He did have good matches in this era but this isn’t one of them. In defence of Chono when the match switches gears and Suzuki trades with him it dramatically improves. Chono would look significantly better if he was just trading strikes all match. Part of wrestling is acknowledging wrestlers shortcomings and working around them. They don’t do that enough here. Murakami is also really bad at the pro wrestling bits of the match so him teaming with Chono is a disaster. Suzuki beats Murakami with the GSP but Murakami flat backs the bump and Minoru looks absolutely disgusted with him for it.
Final Rating: **1/2
The last four matches on this show are dubbed as NJPW vs. K-1. So we have a load of kickboxers in action. What a fantastic idea…
Jan Nortje vs. Yutaka Yoshie
Nortje is your MMA guy. He has only ever won one fight, against Tadao Yasuda though. He’d go on to beat Bob Sapp in his only other MMA win. So maybe he only beats overhyped former IWGP champions. He is enormous. Nearly seven feet tall. His only previous pro wrestling match was at another Tokyo Dome show (2003 AJPW) where he wrestled as Jan the Giant Convict.
He wears boxing gloves, the giant nerd. The match is woeful and I have expect Inoki to jump in there and demand it stops. I find myself giggling at how shit Nortje is at every aspect of wrestling. Bizarrely the crowd are into it. Whatever floats your boat lads. Yoshie hits a top rope splash to the crotch (!!) and finishes with a camel clutch. Good lord this was the drizzling shits. Inoki would bring Nortje back for IGF.
Final Rating: -**
Sean O’Haire vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Sean is, at least, a guy who can wrestle. This is the only time he’d set foot in a Japanese wrestling ring. He’s not even debuted for K-1 yet and when he did he went 0-4. He also got knocked out by Butterbean. Add him to the list of wrestlers Eric has KO’d.
Tanahashi’s hair has evolved since January and it’s gone from spiky to fluffy. Always innovating and improving! Like his in-ring it’s not quite at a peak just yet but is moving in the right direction.
The match is a colossal bore. Sean O’Haire was a terrific specimen and a better character in WWE but he clearly is in over his head. His standard is incredibly middling and an indictment of both the Power Plant and WWE’s own developmental systems. What’s worse is he looks gassed after five minutes. Tanahashi dodges the Seanton Bomb and finishes with the Dragon Sleeper. This sucked. Inoki looks highly unimpressed.
Final Rating: *
Katsuyori Shibata vs. Musashi
Akio Mori, better known as Musashi, is a K-1 legend. A badass. Someone who made the Karate World Cup semi-finals in 1995. Shibs attacked him at the presser and if there’s a demand for handsome men scuffling in suits the clip would be worth a lot of money.
They put a mask on this man! What were they thinking? The match immediately stands apart as it feels like a shoot and the crowd buy into it immediately because it might be a shoot! They adopt a rounds system and it’s a massive contrast to the previous two matches. They both wear gloves, although Shibata is smart enough to wear MMA gloves compared to Musashi’s boxing gloves. They build a good story of Shibata being able to take Musashi down and out wrestle him but Musashi being a superior striker. I find myself gripped by the action! This is how you do shoot style!
Round two is less good with delays and referee interruptions. Musashi lands a load of leg kicks to unbalance Shibata and then kicks him in the head for the win. This was actually very good. It’s sad to see Shibata being used like this when he was clearly leading the way with the kind of style NJPW would eventually gravitate towards, which would see him return in 2012.
Final Rating: ***3/4
IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Bob Sapp (c) vs. Shinsuke Nakamura
I’m not a fan of Sapp the wrestler but Sapp was an event. Him walking to the ring, to Flair’s music no less, feels so special.
He was a huge, huge star around this time and I can’t fault New Japan for wanting to capitalize on that but it all went horribly wrong to the point where Nakamura should have just won the strap here. Nakamura shows good technique and goes after submissions and Sapp just overpowers him and throws him around. That’s the match. It’s pretty good…by Bob Sapp standards. If he’d actually learned how to work he could have been a legend in pro wrestling. Instead he faded away into obscurity, being brought into companies for comedy reasons. He wrestled Danshoku Dino!
I know hindsight is 20-20 and Sapp seemed like a huge draw but the experiment probably should have ended here. Sapp reminds me a lot of Psycho Sid. His presence was incredible and his charisma was off the charts but the matches? Not so good. Nakamura isn’t exactly Shawn Michaels at this stage of his career so there’s no magical carry job. Nakamura does his best and kicks out of the Beastbomb AT ONE. Sapp clubs him back down and hits a second Beastbomb to retain. If only Sapp could have worked at improving himself. He could have been so good. He already had all the intangibles that most wrestlers would kill for.
Final Rating: **3/4
New Japan in the “dark ages” was an experience.