Hideki Suzuki © vs. Masato Tanaka for the ZERO1 World Heavyweight Championship
Pro Wrestling ZERO1
January 1, 2016
Hideki Suzuki’s ongoing run as the king of the Japanese minor leagues is resulting in the most high profile, entertaining and productive output of his pro wrestling career. That is sort of damning with faint praise; almost any run after six years toiling in the obscurity of the Inoki Genome Federation will be high profile and productive by comparison. His presence and dexterity in the ring while holding the top championships in WRESTLE-1 (last year) and ZERO1 (currently) is worthy of praise.
On the annual New Year’s Day ZERO1 show, Suzuki wrestled a great match with the veteran Tanaka. This might have been the best all-around match he has wrestled to date, although I am a rather big fan of his New Year’s Eve 2011 match with Josh Barnett. They did some amateur style riding and fought for positioning at the start that segued into working holds. Suzuki is an Inoki protégé. The start was the type of start one would expect from a wrestler groomed by Inoki, as Inoki-led New Japan (pre-MMA obsession) placed an emphasis on exploratory mat work and holds as a foundation setter. The opening was not what Inoki himself would have done necessarily, but was in-line with his general philosophies.
Tanaka’s influence on the match was also difficult to miss. Suzuki came out of the positioning portion of the match with the advantage and worked over Tanaka with his simple-but-interesting brand of offense until the match spilled to the outside. Ringside is Tanaka’s domain and he did a very Tanaka-like thing by setting up a table and driving Suzuki through it with a top rope splash. The table spot was out of sync with the work both before and after it, but that was likely the point. This was Masato Tanaka wrestling for a promotion’s top championship – if he didn’t go use a table in some fashion to gain an advantage it would be inconsistent with the kind of wrestler that he is.
The bigger issue was that after selling the table spot outside the ring, Suzuki was fighting back fighting evenly with Tanaka in the ring almost immediately. It was not so much a question on whether he no-sold the move as much as he went back on offense rather quickly even though the table spot felt like a transition at the time. In some respects, that decision reminded me of how often in lucha libre the wrestler on the receiving end of a dive is the one who immediately gets the advantage once the wrestlers are back in the ring. The difference being that the handling of dives in lucha is a longstanding regional piece of psychology and it would be a stretch to make the same claim here. It just threw me off a little since the table spot appeared to be a transition but at best just put the wrestlers back on equal footing.
The awesome thing about this match was that the ending stretch (the final three or four minutes) was exciting, concise, and satisfying all at once. The fear in a Tanaka/Suzuki title match is that the ending is going to contain an excessive level of near falls and fighting spirit spots. There was some of that, but not even approaching the point of excess. The near falls were well spaced and made good use of Suzuki’s interesting offense. His Billy Robinson backbreaker and top rope butterfly suplex were awesome looking moves. The teases and near falls of Tanaka’s sliding lariat were handled well, too. It was the sort of compact finish that we *might* see in a mid-card modern Japanese heavyweight but rarely see in a main event title match. The relative restraint added a lot as it allowed the match to end at an appropriate time and left me wanting more. In that regard, this match stood out in stark contrast to something like that Jun Akiyama/Suwama Triple Crown title match from a couple of days later.
I also want to briefly mention the post-match, where Suzuki sold exhaustion for a minute before getting to his feet and celebrating with the title. This was a 16-minute title match without an excessive finish and they were still able to get it over as a battle through small touches like that. The match also had relatively good heat for a modern small promotion Korakuen crowd. That bar is rather low but they clearly did some things right to garner a solid reaction. A good example of a modern Japanese heavyweight match getting across that “war” mentality without relying on the usual assortment of tricks and gimmicks to get there.
Hideki Suzuki is perfect in the role of champion of the misfit Japanese promotions. With Suzuki working Big Japan quite a bit lately, it might only be a matter of time before he adds the Big Japan Strong championship to his mantle. At 35 years old his upside is obviously limited so wrestling a style that feels fresh relative to his contemporaries’ and being champion of mid-level promotions might be his ceiling. It is certainly not the worst ceiling a wrestler could achieve.