Previously on NJPW: It turned out we are actually living in the Switchblade Era, and the power of Friendship Tag could not cure over a decade of mental illness.
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And now, the best and worst of the Giant Baba Memorial Show.
The memorial show to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Giant Baba‘s death took place at Ryogoku Sumo Hall on February 19, 2019, and was broadcast on Samurai TV. The matches with New Japan wrestlers in them are now up on NJPW World. This article, though, is going to talk about the whole show, which is… out there on the internet! If you’re nerdy enough to be reading this, I have faith you are also nerdy enough to find it.
This is one of those shows where the people reading something in English about it almost definitely have different memories and fan-relationships with the wrestlers involved than the Japanese audience watching it live at the venue or on their TVs at a normal TV- watching time. We also probably have different takes on these guys than each other. Maybe some of us are aware of some of these wrestlers through watching them during their runs in WCW or WWF/E or TNA or maybe through watching their stuff in Japan through tape trading, on YouTube, through their company’s streaming service, or on another kind of Japanese wrestling archive. Basically, I’m looking forward to reading your comments on this one, but also please don’t get mad at me for not having watched Abdullah the Butcher as a child.
Another interesting thing about the Giant Baba Memorial Show, and I swear this is the last one before I talk about what actually happened on it, it that it includes NJPW working with other Japanese wrestling companies, something the company hasn’t done in a while and doesn’t do nearly as much as they used to, or as much as most of these companies work with each other. We tend to see New Japan work more with their international partners Ring of Honor, CMLL, and RevPro these days, so them being part of a big collaborative show like this is extra cool.
Best: INOKI BOM-BA-YE
After a rundown of the card during a montage of clips from Giant Baba’s career set to circus music, the first cool surprise and also first of many appearances by EXTREMELY OLD MEN happens: Antonio Inoki shows up! The former tag partner of Baba, founder of NJPW, and current senator with controversial views on dealing with North Korea makes a rare appearance back in the wrestling world, entering to his extremely banging theme song. He opens the show with a speech the crowd seems to enjoy, and though he looks all of his 75 years (but pretty great for 75, I think due to a combination of one of the strongest chins in human history, his hair situation, and the cut of his suit), his charisma is still obvious.
Worst: Mid Times, Great Oldies
Inoki descending from the heavens/taking time out of his busy politician schedule is followed by the three weakest, least entertaining matches on the card. The Giant Baba Memorial Battle Royal is a pretty typical Japanese wrestling comedy battle royal featuring all middle-aged-to-old men. It’s only about seven minutes long and appropriately features Big Japan’s Abdullah Kobayashi dressed as his namesake Butcher mentor. It boils down to an All Japan throwback matchup between Masao Inoue and the 70-year-old Mitsuo Momota, with some involvement from special guest referee Mighty Inoue, and the crowd is pretty into it. Momota wins and it’s somehow not the most impressive accomplishment by a septuagenarian on this show.
The following eight-man tag that pits Tomoaki Honma, Ren Narita, BJW’s Yuji Okabayashi, and AJPW’s Naoya Nomura vs. Kazushi Miyamoto, Tomohiko Hashimoto, Daichi Hashimoto, and Takuya Nomura is probably the most fun for people who have followed Honma’s career for a while. He and Miyamoto, who enters dressed like Scott Steiner, used to be a tag team called TURMERIC STORM and wrestled in various promotions in Japan as well as at ROH Final Battle 2003 against Colt Cabana and CM Punk. For me, the standout part of this match was Nomura though, who was one of several dudes on this card who made me think, “Man, I should watch more All Japan.”
The Street Fight Bunkhouse Deathmatch after this is a short, weird mess that never pretends like it’s going to be otherwise. The team of Hikaru Sato (representing Pancrase MISSION), Mitsuya Nagai (Dradition), Shiji Ishikawa (AJPW), and THE 76-YEAR-OLD GREAT KOJIKA enters first, followed by Atsushi Onita’s never-not-awesome “Wild Thing” entrance and undying charisma that overshadows his teammates Hideki Suzuki, Hideki Hosaka, and recent WWE Performance Center guest coach (!!!) Kendo Kashin a little bit. This match starts off as a brawl and escalates to include Onita delivering an unprotected chair shot to Kojika’s head. Onita dishes out and receives more damage anyone else, but Suzuki gets the pinfall victory over Sato.
The Abdullah The Butcher Retirement Ceremony
Abdullah the Butcher debuted in 1958 and hasn’t wrestled since 2010, but officially retires on this 2019 show. Given that he’s 78 years old and in a wheelchair, that’s probably a good idea. A series of old men enter the ring to give him flowers and have their picture taken with him, and he looks somberly emotional, but everyone’s spirits lift when Dos Caras and Mil Máscaras show up. It’s the first of a few more personal, kind of sweet interactions between peers. The luchadors are followed by the original Tiger Mask, Jun Akiyama, Seiji Sakaguchi, Keiji Mutoh – who looks young and peppy in this crowd and nearly gets Abdullah to stand up out of his chair, the huge pop-getting Stan Hansen, and the ancient Dory Funk Jr.
There’s also a “Message for Butcher” from Dick Beyer, aka the Destroyer, (who, along with Abdullah the Butcher, was one of current NJPW President Harold Meij’s favorite wrestlers as a kid), a sweet old man letter you can read here about brutal, theatrical violence that captures why wrestlers never seem to really retire.
The subsequent video message from Minoru Suzuki, with whom the Butcher tagged in All Japan in 2007, is in Japanese and incomprehensible to me except for “Sayonara, Abdullah the Butcher. Thank you, Abby.” But it does bring to mind a time Suzuki talked about the Butcher in the subtitled interview/documentary The King In The UK, recalling a conversation in which the older wrestler told him the simple, brilliant reasoning behind part of his gimmick.
The Butcher gets on the mic and makes a speech in English (he never had to pretend not to speak it to be foreign enough for Japan) that is the speech of a fairly normal old man except for the part about his friend “Reverend Kim.” I feel like that might be a cult thing! The crowd is very into his main point, which is “I want all you young kids out there to make sure that you do not put your mother or your father in a home when they get old. You’re supposed to take care of them and make sure because one day you’ll get old and somebody’ll put you in a home. Remember that.” After a ten-bell salute, Abdullah the Butcher is officially retired. One of wrestling’s most infamous bloody monsters goes out like seeming like basically a regular guy, albeit a very respected one.
Best: 2019: The Year Of Taichi And/Or Sanada?
The matches get a lot stronger after the retirement ceremony, and the next two include good showings for New Japan wrestlers. Suzukigun (Taka Michinoku, Taichi, and Yoshinobu Kanemaru) defeat the mostly All Japan team of Masanobu Fuchi (65), Yoshiaki Fujiwara (69), and Yuma Aoyagi (23) in a pretty normal, fun tag match. Taichi vs. Aoyagi is some actually good, hard-hitting wrestling, but the real highlight is Taichi trying to provoke his former mentor Toshiaki Kawada on commentary in a very “LOOK AT ME NOW, DAD” way both in and out of the ring and Kawada just completely no-selling it every time.
Los Ingobernables de Japon (Bushi and Sanada) vs. Sweeper (All Japan’s Jake Lee and Koji Iwamoto) vs. Shota Umino and Ayato Yoshida is a sprint compared to everything else on the card. It probably helps that everyone in it is 35 or younger! Lee and Iwamoto dominate the first portion of the match against the Young Lions, but Sanada ends it looking very strong, much like Taichi in the previous match. This one’s definitely worth checking out on NJPW World, especially if you haven’t seen these All Japan boys before.
Best/Worst: Dads Gone Wild
The six-man dad fight between Burning Wild (Akiyama and Takao Omori) with Taiyo Kea and Osamu Nishimura, Satoshi Kojima, and Yuji Nagata is a kind of nothing match to me, but the live audience, already feeling nostalgic, really enjoys it. It’s a lot of CAGEY VETERANS doing CAGEY VETERAN THINGS, is ended by Akiyama pinning Noshimura after an Exploder Suplex, and the crowd is into every second of it. It seems like a perfect match for this specific show.
Semi-Ironic Best: A Thousand Masks And A Thousand Years Old
My second favorite match of the night, which I enjoyed in a very different way than my favorite, which I will talk about in the next section, featured even older men and took a very different route towards showing them off. Somehow, actual factual peers of Giant Baba Mil Máscaras (76) and his brother Dos Caras (67) have a straight-up tag match against Kaz Hayashi and the man I will never not be shocked dated Io Shirai, Nosawa Rongai. People are hyped to see these old, old men in the ring, and Dos Caras, reminding me so much of Mermaid Man from Spongebob, manages to deliver to a surprising degree. Hayashi is obviously carrying the match, but it’s not the most absurd thing you’ve ever seen in wrestling.
Rongai and Máscaras, though, is when the match turns into basically Ibushi vs. Yoshihiko. The selling of the heels for the faces is so dang skilled and professional here and backed up by the crowd booing them for even legally hitting the lucha legends. The climax of Máscaras, who is absolutely at a hip-breaking age, GOING UP TOP and delivering a diving crossbody to both opponents for the win is a stressful, weird, cool moment. I loved every second of this bizarre match and I don’t see how any wrestling fan couldn’t.
Actual Best Match On The Card: Pilgrimage To The Dragon Gate
Like the heading says, the actual best match on the card is the tag match between Mochizuki Dojo (Masaaki Mochizuki and Shun Skywalker) from Dragon Gate and the team of NOAH’s Naomichi Marufuji and Michinoku Pro’s Jinsei Shinzaki. Shinzaki (fka WWF’s Hakushi) and Marufuji’s entrances have very different vibes (Buddhist pilgrim vs. aging rock star), but rule equally, and both of these guys bring the most Big Star Energy on the show outside the main event.
The crowd is hyped for this match, and the fast-paced Marufuji vs. Mochizuki opening sequence doesn’t calm them down. The Skywalker vs. Shinzaki sequences are really cool too, and it is crazy impressive that Shinzaki can still do the rope walk perfectly AND do a moonsault AND ALSO a cartwheel. After a hard-hitting exchange of kicks and chops, Marufuji just manages to counter what would have been a pin from Mochizuki into an inside cradle to win the match. The intensity and mix of strong personalities in this match really deliver.
Best: Yoshitatsu And Three Other Guys
The show’s main event is the closest thing to a true inter-promotional dream match on the card. We get Big Japan/everywhere’s Daisuke Sekimoto and All Japan ace/Triple Crown Champion Kento Miyahara against Hiroshi Tanahashi and his former tag partner/Miyahara’s former tag partner/owner of professional wrestling’s greatest personal website, yoshitatsuism.com, Yoshitatsu. Generationally, Miyahara is Okada’s ace equivalent, but the way he and Tanahashi play up their similar status and also gear and hair is very effective.
We also get to see the Heel Tana we haven’t seen in a while in this match, a smart move for the highest status guy in the ring. He mockingly flexes at Sekimoto in a way that makes his eventual hot tag very satisfying and gets the crowd even more into his strike exchange with Miyahara. The young ace and Sekimoto both look like huge stars and fantastic wrestlers in this match, and Miyahara pinning Yoshitatsu after a Shutdown German Suplex to stand tall at the end of the show, the top champion of the promotion Baba founded, feels like exactly the right call.
After Tanahashi and Miyahara pose and catchphrase and make up, in a way, everyone gets in the ring for more video messages, these ones in honor of Giant Baba. John Laurinaitis’s seems the most sincere and personal, Ricky Steamboat’s is sweet, and Ric Flair’s is more about putting himself over, but his line about Baba being “the greatest promoter, one of the greatest wrestlers, and the greatest family to ever represent the Japanese culture” goes over great with the audience. Sakaguchi makes the final speech of the night, and after a ten-bell salute during which people cheer Baba’s name, which I did not know was a thing it was okay to do during one of these in any culture, everyone goes home.
So by the end of the memorial show, Baba’s legacy has been celebrated, it seems like everyone had a good time, and I cannot emphasize enough that we saw a 76-year-old man do a diving crossbody. I’ll see you back here soon to talk about the retirement of another, less iconic wild man of wrestling, Takashi Iizuka, on a more normal New Japan show later this week.