Growing up in Flair country during The Nature Boy’s peak, I became very familiar with the phrase, “The Sport of Professional Wrestling” and the corresponding philosophy thereof, as I have since come to understand it, places the role of winning at such a pinnacle position in a promotional focus that no wrestler could ever be above it because winning – championships in particular – is what defines a legacy. To be in-the-know regarding pro wrestling presented as sport is to recognize that the results are predetermined, but to gain insight as to the skill-set required to be the predetermined winner. The prima-ballerina of the Russian ballet has a role defined in advance; she gets to that spot and maintains that spot by being better than the best. Such is the sport of professional wrestling.
Much of what we have seen throughout the WrestleMania Era that I have written so much about these past fifteen years is not pro wrestling as sport, so we collectively as followers of the products that have shaped and continue to shape the global perception at large of professional wrestling simply have not witnessed pro wrestling as sport in almost thirty years. However, New Japan Pro Wrestling has carried on the tradition that I grew up watching with Ric Flair and I have thoroughly enjoyed revisiting that philosophy in pro wrestling by binging NJPW matches over the past few months. For my fandom’s journey, it has been refreshing to distance myself from the sports entertainment bubble; it is so different and it connects emotionally in ways that I am still trying to contextualize in order to verbalize.
Pro wrestling presented as sport is best appreciated, in my opinion, on the first watch, creating a key distinction from pro wrestling as presented under the WWE umbrella, which I believe often benefits from multiple viewings to optimize the totality of the experience. I watch NJPW like I watch college football or an NBA game – it’s one and done and in the moment because so much of the drama and storytelling is derived from the sport-like presentation’s emphasis on victory.
In my experience with New Japan so far, and it’s still very much in its infancy, I get the impression that winning is everything. Such is why it has been so easy to learn about the wrestlers in NJPW, because the will to win is so evident in the style of in-ring action. That does not mean that key elements of any successful pro wrestling performance do not translate from the formula I created for assessing WWE matches throughout the WrestleMania Era, but when winning is everything, victory is the central theme of the story being told; therefore, wins and losses matter more than you could fathom as a WWE fan.
Below is my review of the best matches in New Japan from 2012, a year that I discuss on The Doc Says this week. For future reference, my star ratings for these matches have the following descriptions: 3 ¾ = bordering on great / 4 = great / 4 ¼ = definitively great, bordering on all-time great / 4 ½ = all-time great / 4 ¾ = consideration for the pantheon / 5 = it gets no better.
Doc’s Top 10 NJPW Matches of 2012
Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsuya Naito for the IWGP Heavyweight Title at the NJWP 40th Anniversary Show (Doc rating – **** ¾) – This is one of my favorite New Japan bouts to date, as the flow of the performance by the time the scintillating climax had concluded left me feeling as though I could not have asked for anything more in a pro wrestling match. The psychological focus on injuring body parts in a slower paced first half fed seamlessly into the more action packed second half, but injuries never drifted far from focus and informed much of the aforementioned thrilling final minutes. I felt like I was watching a modern day Flair vs. Steamboat.
Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Title at Dominion (Doc rating – **** ½) – I felt like I needed to go back and watch the early phases of their renowned saga and, while their match at New Beginning struggled to hold my attention, the rematch a few months later – where it seemed clearer to me that their chemistry had settled in – was utterly fantastic. There were some sleek exchanges during the climax that peaked the drama incredibly well, and I appreciated that it never drifted into “epic match” territory, though it was all the more legitimately epic for avoiding the trope I associate with the quoted phrase.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Minoru Suzuki for the IWGP Heavyweight Title at King of Pro Wrestling (Doc rating – **** ½) – This pairing shapes forty percent of my Top 5 for the year. In what was essentially year 1 for my Tana character study, I found Suzuki to be the opponent that most broke Tana free from his tried and true (and highly acclaimed) routine, or at the very least altered the aura between bells, making every psychologically sound attack on a body part feel like it meant that much more to the end result and aiding prominently in the utmost exemplification of Tana’s fighting spirit. Suzuki’s facial expressions in this match were of the theatrical quality that I absolutely love in professional wrestling.
Kazuchika Okada vs. Karl Anderson in the Finals of the G1 Climax (Doc rating – **** ½) – Anderson’s athleticism blows you away the first time you see it, as the things he does in this match – particularly the height he reaches when he jumps – command your undivided attention; he’s a good example of how you cannot judge a book by its cover. One thing I loved about this match was the danger both combatants found in each other’s top moves, their counters to them proof of preparation and respect; that little touch quickly informs the novice NJPW fan of what signature moves make these guys elite winners. If you haven’t seen this, you should check it out.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Minoru Suzuki for the IWGP Heavyweight Title at WrestleKingdom VI (Doc rating – **** ¼) – This was Tana in his prime against a unique challenger, a brawler-technician hybrid who essentially amounted to The Ace’s Ivan Drago. Similar to what we have seen from Styles-Joe matches throughout the past decade-plus, Suzuki was so dominant at times here that you wondered how in the hell Tanahashi was going to get through it, and at one point there’s an incredibly engaging moment where it literally looks like Tana has died. A characterful performance from both and a great story told.
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Tetsuya Naito on Day 1 of the G1 Climax (Doc rating – ****) – It’s amazing to witness the transformation of Naito from the persona he had back in 2012 to what he progressed to be as the decade wore on; the smiles, the aww-shucks attitude, and the like remind me of Rocky Maivia, but granted Naito was still a stud between the ropes, his combination of roll-ups in the latter minutes of this match with Nakamura proof positive of that. To see Shinsuke at his peak is a pleasure; the charisma plus the dangerous aura emitted by his striking prowess is palpable here.
Tetsuya Naito vs. Kazuchika Okada on Day 2 of the G1 Climax (Doc rating – ****) – A more deliberate pace, which granted made perfect sense for a tournament psychologically, threatened to dis-engage, but a steady progression toward a characteristically thrilling final few minutes was enough to push this into the category of one of the most underrated great matches of the year in NJPW for 2012.
Low Ki vs. Prince Devitt for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title at Power Struggle (Doc rating – ****) – As far as mid-card matches go in NJPW circa 2012, this was perhaps the finest effort. It was not given the time to be something epically special, but to call it one of the finer 11-12 minute matches that you will see this decade across promotions, with high stakes and unpredictability (for initial viewers anyway) reinforcing the foundation of its world class combatants, would not be a stretch by any means.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Masato Tanaka for the IWGP Heavyweight Title at Kizuna Road (Doc rating – ****) – Tanaka’s was not a name I expected to pop up on my viewing list, and it was nice to see the tough-as-nails fighter that I had grown familiar with through latter day ECW in a high profile spot like this. Another great match from Tana here, though it did make the formula to his work did stand out more.
Kota Ibushi vs. Low Ki for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title at King of Pro Wrestling (Doc rating – *** ¾) – The deliberate pace at the start somewhat defies expectations of seeing these two face each other in high profile fashion, but the match evolves nicely into more of what you’d expect. It mostly just flirts with greatness, but it absolutely has moments of junior/cruiser nirvana, including a sky high Fisherman suplex spot that is worth the wait in setting it up.
Honorable Mentions worth your time – Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi from New Beginning, Kazuchika Okada vs. Shinsuke Nakamura from the G1 Climax, and Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Karl Anderson from the G1 Climax
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