It is March Madness time, which makes this the perfect month for a pro wrestling tournament tie-in. The March Match Guide will cover several large tournaments from around the wrestling world that took place this past month including the New Japan Cup, wXw 16 Carat Gold tournament, and the 2015 King of the Indies tournament. As a teaser of sorts of what is to come in this month’s Guide, I am publishing a retrospective on the 2000 Super J-Cup tournament that I wrote several months back but sat on my hard drive until now.
Fifteen years ago this April, Super J Cup Stage 3 was held over two days in Miyagi and Tokyo, Japan.
The original Super J Cup event – promoted by New Japan Pro Wrestling (“NJPW”) in 1994 – is remembered today as a seminal moment in the history of junior heavyweight wrestling. Super J Cup Stage 2 – promoted by the WAR promotion in 1995 – occurred in the midst of the mid-90’s glory period for junior heavyweight wrestling. While Stage 2 is not as celebrated as the original version of the tournament, it is nonetheless fondly remembered for its historically impressive list of participants as well as hosting the first Japanese meeting between Mexico’s Rey Mysterio, Jr. and Psicosis.
Super J Cup Stage 3 – promoted by Michinoku Pro (“M-Pro”) in 2000 – is somewhat forgotten compared to its predecessors. The event is viewed – as many third installments in a trilogy often are – as being too late, too different, and too underwhelming to meet the lofty standards previously set.
Sometimes, we are too quick to label a follow up as a complete failure. With proper time and perspective, is Super J Cup Stage 3 the underachieving disappointment is has long been labeled as or have we been too hard it all this time?
Tough Acts to Follow
April 16, 1994: NJPW holds the first ever Super J Cup tournament in Tokyo, Japan. The concept was the brain child of legendary junior heavyweight Jushin “Thunder” Liger and featured fourteen of the world’s preeminent junior heavyweights in a one night, single elimination tournament. The event took place during what was arguably the high point for junior heavyweight wrestling on a worldwide basis.
Liger, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, The Great Sasuke, Negro Casas and Shinjiro Ohtani were all considered to be amongst – or in short order would join – the list of all-time great juniors. All six men competed in the 1994 tournament along with other top flight juniors at various stages of their careers such as Dean Malenko, Taka Michinoku, Gedo, El Samurai, Super Delphin, and Hayabusa.
The tournament was a rousing commercial success, selling out Sumo Hall to the tune of 11,500 fans. The home video release became a big attraction for tape traders abroad.
In addition to the financial successes, the tournament was considered a major artistic achievement. The event won the Wrestling Observer Newsletter award for “Best Major Show of 1994” and immediately became revered as one of the greatest tournaments in pro wrestling history. Dave Meltzer rated the quarterfinal match between El Samurai & Great Sasuke at **** ½, the semi-final match between Sasuke and Liger at **** ¾, and the finals between Wild Pegasus (Benoit) and Sasuke at a full *****. Given those match ratings and the solid group of tournament matches that made up the rest of the tournament, simply calling the show the best of 1994 might have been underselling things.
The event was such a success that others sought to get in on the action. Liger and New Japan lent the concept to Ultimo Dragon and the WAR promotion and together they promoted Super J Cup Stage 2 on December 13, 1995. The sequel equaled the original at the box office with an 11,500 person sellout of Sumo Hall in Tokyo. Benoit, Liger, Otani, Samurai, and Gedo returned, and were joined by other now legendary junior heavyweights in Ultimo Dragon and Chris Jericho. As many sequels tend to be, the 1995 Super J Cup was a step down from the original, but still well received for matches like Ultimo Dragon vs. Shinjiro Otani and Ultimo Dragon vs. Jushin Liger. A non-tournament exhibition between Rey Mysterio, Jr. and Psicosis was labeled the show-stealer at the time, even if in hindsight it was not the greatest match the two longtime rivals had together.
Despite the acclaim of the first two Super J Cup iterations, the concept did not make an immediate follow up.
In 1996, NJPW tried their hands at two different junior-centric concept shows.
The first was an all junior heavyweight show titled Sky Diving J – an eight match card where eight different junior heavyweight division championships from around the world were at stake. The show drew 13,000+ fans to Toyko’s Budokan Hall (16,300 capacity) and several of the matches were well received, but not at the level of the first Super J-Cup tournament. The success of the all-title match concept indirectly led to the Super J-Crown tournament that August, where eight junior heavyweight championships put their championships on the line in a single-elimination, winner-take-all tournament. This tournament was held in conjunction with that year’s G-1 Climax and once again was an artistic success with several well-rated matches. The Great Sasuke emerged victorious and became the first man to hold eight junior heavyweight championships at one time.
In the three years that passed between the Super J-Crown and Super J Cup Stage 3, the junior scene in Japan dwindled. The American & Canadian juniors spent more of their time stateside with WCW and later WWF wrestling as heavyweights. NJPW lowered its focus on the junior division. Outside of the annual Best of Super Juniors tournaments, no major juniors-only events took place in those three year in between the J-Crown tournament and Super J-Crown and Super J Cup Stage 3.
So when Michinoku Pro announced a return of the Super J-Cup after a long layoff, they were facing longs odds for success. Not only were they attempting to rekindle an almost legendary brand name, they were attempting to do so under less than ideal conditions.
It should come as no surprise (given the sponsoring promotion) that the field for the 2000 version of the Super J-Cup had a noticeable M-Pro slant to it.
At the time of the tournament, more than a quarter of the field – Great Sasuke, Tiger Mask IV, Sasuke the Great, Gran Hamada and Curry Man – made M-Pro their home base in Japan. Two other wrestlers – Kaz Hayashi (WCW) and MEN’s Teioh (BJW) – while officially representing WCW and Big Japan, respectively – had made their names in wrestling while working for M-Pro a half-decade earlier.
The obvious M-Pro flavor aside, the 2000 Super J Cup boasted quite motley crew of junior heavyweights. Future 666 founder Onryo (FMW) immediately makes any group he is part of an eclectic one. There were several young wrestlers amongst the field including CIMA (Toryumon), Ricky Marvin (CMLL), Judo Suwa (Toyumon), and Shinya Makabe (New Japan). The lone US/Canada representative – the first of Super J Cup to have only a one American/Canadian participant – was Christopher Daniel’s Curry Man alter-ego.
Veteran Naoki Sano (Independent) entered the tournament alongside old rival Jushin “Thunder” Liger (NJPW). The creator of the Super J-Cup concept, Liger already had one cup victory under his belt (1995) and was attempting to repeat in 2000. Rounding out the field were veterans Ricky Fuji (FMW) and Katsumi Usada (BattlArts).
At the time, this field likely struck many non-Japanese fans as a rather underwhelming collection of juniors, at least by prior Super J-Cup standards.
The 1994 & 1995 tournament featured several wrestlers – Benoit, Malenko, Jericho, Michinoku, and Guerrero – who by 2000, were established household names with the WWF. Other 1994 and 1995 Super J-Cup participants including Otani, Ultimo Dragon, Negro Casas and El Samurai were viewed very favorably by tape trading fans in 2000. None of them were booked for the M-Pro version of the tournament. Of the 1994 and 1995 fields, only Sasuke, Liger, and Fuji returned in 2000.
The field would have appeared lacking in star power to a 2000’s era wrestling fan, particularly when compared with prior fields. With the benefit of hindsight, the 2000 tournament group fares much better.
CIMA – a surprise finalist in the tournament – has gone onto become the enduring face of Dragon Gate and its predecessor promotion, Toryumon. CIMA’s place amongst all-time great junior heavyweights is somewhat divisive but his position in the popular Dragon Gate promotion has made him a legendary figure amongst that promotion’s fans. SUWA also enjoyed success in Toryumon/Dragon Gate before a memorable run as a Pro Wrestling NOAH junior from 2004 through 2007 (capped off by a great performance opposite of KENTA in a 2006 junior title match).
Remarkably still just 34 years of age, Ricky Marvin has had a long international career in Mexico, Europe, and Japan. While never a superstar anywhere on the globe, Marvin has turned in quality performances with CMLL and NOAH over the past decade and a half and currently wrestles under a mask as Bengala for AAA. A similar statement could be made about Christopher Daniels, who has since enjoyed a long and productive (if unremarkable) career with Ring of Honor and TNA. Shinya Makabe became Togi Makabe, won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in 2012, and is still a contributing member of a well-oiled NJPW machine.
The more well-known at the time wrestlers have also fared well with fifteen years of hindsight.
Gran Hamada’s reputation has arguably been enhanced over the prior 15 years as more of his 1980’s and pre-Michinoku Pro 1990’s matches have become more readily available. Hamada – known largely by fans outside of Japan and Mexico as the “old guy in Kaientai matches” in 2000 – is now considered by a growing number of devoted fans as a fringe Top 100 Greatest Wrestler Ever candidate. Not unlike his pro wrestling hero Terry Funk, Teioh has enjoyed a long secondary career in secondary Japanese promotions Big Japan, Osaka Pro, and UNION, amongst others. Tiger Mask IV has had the least memorable career of all the Tiger Masks, but has been an average junior heavyweight with New Japan for over ten years now.
It is apparent that the field has aged well. The participant lists looks stronger through 2015 eyes than it did through 2000 eyes. At the same time, it is hard to argue that the 2000 tournament lacks the top-level superstar punch of the first two tournaments.
During most of 1996 and the early part of 1997, Michinoku Pro Wrestling was a haven for fast paced, cutting edge, junior heavyweight wrestling.
During a period in wrestling history where companies like WCW and NJPW were likely at their junior heavyweight peaks, the much smaller M-Pro promotion was right there with them. The little promotion from northeastern Japan boasted a roster during that period that included in-their-prime wrestlers Great Sasuke, Dick Togo, Taka Michinoku, Super Delphin, Shiryu (Kaz Hayashi), MEN’s Teoih, and Sho Funaki. Those wrestlers joined veterans Gran Hamada and Jinsei Shinzaki, along with youngsters Gran Naniwa, Tiger Mask IV, and Masato Yakushiji to form a fantastic small promotion roster that is still just fondly remembered today.
A hot feud between the Kaentai stable and M-Pro babyfaces produced classic multi-man match after classic multi-match match that eventually earned the promotion some US exposure. The Kaientai angle made its way to ECW in 1997. For a time, M-Pro was arguably the hottest independent promotion anywhere in the world.
As fate would have it, that taste of American wrestling success would ultimately lead to the end of the M-Pro glory period. Sasuke and most of Kaientai were courted by the WWF. Kaz Hayashi ended up with WCW. M-Pro lost the huge momentum it once had by the end of the 1990’s. At the time of Super J-Cup Stage 3, they were back to being another small, independent promotion without much buzz.
M-Pro served as the promoters for the third Super J-Cup at a time when they were a middling, almost irrelevant promotion in the Japanese wrestling scene. That has certainly played a role in the contemporary view of the tournament. A small, largely irrelevant promotion hosting the tournament made it feel smaller and ultimately forgettable.
Is Two Always Better Than One?
Nobody likes change. I can imagine there were at least a few upset individuals in Japan and abroad when the announcement was made that Super J-Cup Stage 3 would be a two-day event instead of the previously established single day affair. The tournament also broke the mold by moving the first round out of Sumo Hall to the less photogenic Sendai Shi Taiikukan in Miyagi.
The first round in Miyagi feels like a preliminary show and the atmosphere has a lot to do with it. The lights are turned up, there is a lot of empty space on the floor, and even though there does appear to be three or four thousand people in the building, there are still many empty seats. The whole set up feels incomplete. When a tournament is split over two nights in two different cities, the first night is going to feel incomplete. The fans get to see who advances, but are robbed of seeing the outcome live. That fact certainly hurt the draw for the opening night. While M-Pro certainly would have preferred a stronger turnout, the first night worked in at least one sense. The atmosphere added to the first round matches and the first show had the feeling of a preliminary and less stressful event.
The second show was back at Sumo Hall just like the old days, although with far less people in the seats. The 11,500 person hall sold out in 1994 and 995, but drew 8,000 fans in 2000.
We can probably add “two shows” and “the venues” to the list of reasons the M-Pro J-Cup has largely been met with a collective “eh” for a decade and a half now. The two shows gave a disjointed feeling to the proceedings and the unfilled venues did little to help.
Liger versus Michinoku Pro
Jushin Liger arrived at Sumo Hall on April 1st, having purposely left his signature red and white costume at home.
Instead, the legendary junior heavyweight dressed from head to toe in his alternate black costume. This was a costume that Liger – particularly in the years to come – would pull out while working as a heel. Liger wasn’t necessarily a heel at this point in his career. He also did not necessarily wrestle as one throughout the tournament. The wardrobe choice was nonetheless appropriate, however. In eventually winning his second J-Cup crown, the 1995 winner would go through a trio of home promotion M-Pro favorites – Tiger Mask IV, MEN’s Teioh and Gran Hamada – taking on an adversarial role in the process.
Liger was the tournament favorite and nobody ever roots for the favorite (well, aside from Yankee fans.). The fact that he defeated three M-Pro wrestlers on the way to the victory only made his eventual triumph even more rudely received. Judging by his choice of costume, Liger seemed well aware how he might be viewed during the two-day event.
While not going full-on cheating, mask ripping bad guy, Liger’s first three tournament matches were clearly structured to get the crowd behind his opponents. The smaller but passionate crowd on the first night was hugely behind Tiger Mask IV. The latest Tiger Mask spent most of his 1996 with M-Pro and was a regular there the year before this tournament as well. Every Tiger Mask pinning combo and near fall had fans on the floor jumping out of their seats. Even when Liger faced perennial bad guy MEN’s Teioh in the quarterfinals, the match was structured to provide Teioh with the false finishes.
Fans love to see the beloved veteran make one last run at glory, which is exactly what Gran Hamada was doing in this tournament. That is, before he ran into Liger. Like he did with his first two opponents, Liger gives Hamada a lot and teased several victories for the then-fifty year old wrestler, only for Hamada to come up short in the end.
At the end of all of that, awaiting Liger in the finals was CIMA. The fledgling Toryumon promotion was the spiritual ancestor to glory days M-Pro and CIMA was its biggest and brightest future star. Although technically a heel, one gets the feeling that Liger going through CIMA to win the tournament was no accident either. After dispatching of three M-Pro mainstays, Liger did away with CIMA to capture his second tournament title.
The Liger matches themselves are all above average. They benefit from the running theme of Liger going through M-Pro stars past and present to win the title. It seems too apparent to be a mere coincidence. This was conscious booking and good booking at that in terms of telling a tournament-long story.
The time that has lapsed has also made Liger’s win in general less of an issue. At the time of the Cup, Liger was in the midst of his 11th and final reign as IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion. Maybe fans were not sick of seeing Liger win, but it sure wasn’t anything new, special or different. Liger winning the tournament doesn’t seem bad now because Liger hasn’t won much of importance during the 15 years in-between. At the time he was overexposed but Liger’s dominance seem far less egregious through modern eyes. However, it is hard to blame any fans at the time that might have viewed Liger’s tournament win as being stale and predictable.
Before They Were Stars
As previously mentioned, the Super J-Cup Stage 3 tournament field almost certainly looks stronger when viewed through modern eyes than contemporary ones. One significant reason for this is that several wrestlers who have since built a strong reputation were just starting out in the year 2000. In revisiting the tournament now, it gives us a brief glimpse into the early days of future stars such as CIMA, Ricky Marvin, and Shinya (Togi) Makabe.
CIMA wrestled in the first match, opposite of CMLL’s Ricky Marvin. None of the fourteen wrestlers that entered the ring after CIMA were able to match him in sheer charisma. CIMA’s charisma was always his selling point. He has long been a competent and at times very good wrestler, but he has and still has a unique presence particularly among traditional junior heavyweights.
His pre-match ringing the bell celebration while surrounded by his underappreciated manager Taru and Suwa holds up well even after a decade of Dragon Gate utilizing heat-seeking tricks. CIMA feels like a star throughout the tournament, even if he doesn’t quite wrestle like one. Although his moves are tame and commonplace today, they feel a little unnecessary and out-of-place against the more traditional junior styles utilized by many of the other competitors. CIMA’s innovation looks forced and tacky, for lack of a better word.
On the other hand, Ricky Marvin wowed in his one-match performance with an abbreviated but spectacular showcase of his high flying style. Marvin’s quick arm drags, slick springboard hurricanrana, and nutty running springboard dive to the floor are as impressive today as they were in 2000. Marvin was one and done in the tournament, but he maybe had the best pure flying performance of either night. He should have been in WCW’s cruiserweight division in 2000, had WCW actually cared about the division at the time.
Lastly, Makabe should be mentioned. While CIMA has likely had the better career, Makabe is the only one of the Stage 3 participants to have a long and successful heavyweight career post-tournament. He has not produced at a Guerrero, Jericho or Benoit level but he has been a valuable cog in the New Japan machine. Some of that future stardom can be seen in his lone match, before the bell even rings. He knocks the ref’s hand away while jawing at his opponent. He might be younger and much lighter, but the glare the he shoots his opponent is pure Makabe.
The two-day tournament makes for a breezy, easy watch. It takes until the 6th match of day one for a bout to go past the 10-minute mark and only the main event of Liger vs. Tiger Mask goes over 12 minutes. On the whole, the matches last longer on the second day, however the ones that should be kept brief are for the most part. There is not a huge variety in finishes with a DQ finish on the first night and a KO in the quarterfinals being the two non-pin or submission endings.
The actual matches, however, did bring a nice amount of variety to the table.
Teioh and Usuda wrestle a submission heavy, Battlarts-light match on the first night that is a bunch of fun and possibly match of the tournament. CIMA’s matches against Onryo and Marvin are prototypical Dragon Gate matches in some respects. Great Sasuke – as usual – attempts to kill himself on several occasions while Liger wrestles his usual solid, proven junior style match every time out. There are matches with definite heel/face structure and matches that are wrestled neutral. The matches get a fair amount of heat in general, but the crowd reactions do not exactly make it feel like a special, can’t-miss happening.
From a pure match quality perspective, Super J-Cup Stage 3 does not match up to the original. It also probably is not as far away as many felt at the time. If we are taking non-tournament matches out of the equation, the 2000 version feels comparable to the 1995 one. There are no matches to go out of your way worth seeing, but there are few stinkers and a lot of watchable ones as well.
- CIMA vs. Ricky Marvin ** ½
- Ricky Fuji vs. Sasuke The Great **
- Naoki Sano vs. SUWA **
- Katsumi Usuda vs. MEN’s Teioh *** ½
- Curry Man vs. Onryo * ½
- Gran Hamada vs. Shinya Makabe * ½
- Kaz Hayashi vs. The Great Sasuke **
- Jushin Thunder Liger vs. Tiger Mask ** ½
- CIMA vs. Onryo * ¾
- Gran Hamada vs. Ricky Fuji **
- Naoki Sano vs. The Great Sasuke ***
- Jushin Thunder Liger vs. MEN’s Teioh ** ¾
- CIMA vs. Naoki Sano **
- Gran Hamada vs. Jushin Thunder Liger ** ½
- CIMA vs. Jushin Thunder Liger *** ¼
A quick Google search of the phrase “Super J-Cup 1994” turns up somewhere in the neighborhood of three dozen reviews/discussions and may more tape trading sites hawking the commercial tape. A Google search for “Super J-Cup 2000” reveals slightly less interest. The disparity in the search results between the two is probably too big. Super J-Cup Stage 3 is a fun, watchable tournament from start to finish with a fascinating cast of wrestlers.
It will forever live in the shadows of the great 1990’s Super J-Cups and other NJPW junior-specific tournaments and that is not necessarily an unfair fate. The tournament is simply not as good as the 1994 version in almost any aspect. It probably deserves a fate better than being the “Hey, did you know there was a Super J-Cup tournament in 2000?” footnote in wrestling history but it is also not a major, memorable event.
Super J-Cup Stage 3 is ultimately a solid, top-to-bottom junior heavyweight wrestling tournament that fans of the 1990’s junior style will likely enjoy for both match quality and for a chance to see a motley crew of wrestlers in one place at differing stages of their careers. It is not an all-time great, but rather a fun tournament that shouldn’t be skipped over if you are a fan of the junior heavyweight style.