New Japan Pro Wrestling
Fukuoka Convention Center (Fukuoka, Japan)
This match was intriguing on paper because in Nakamura, the Gracies have their first NJPW opponent theoretically capable of helping them bridge the gap between their MMA background and pro wrestling. NJPW fans groaned at Nakamura being paired with the Gracies because it is seen as a “waste” of one of the promotion’s better workers. Of course a perfectly good use of one of your better workers is to pair him with your more inexperienced workers to attempt to get the most from them. This is particularly true in this case given that Nakmura’s MMA background and pro wrestling style makes him uniquely qualified to work with pro wrestling newcomers, Daniel and Rolles.
NJPW is going to push the Gracies. They might as well put them in the best position to succeed. Right now, that means working with Nakamura.
Like most Gracie matches so far, all four wear gis to the ring, with Nakamura sporting an appropriately unique and outlandish red one. Nakamura begins for his team and leads the Gracies through some slow grappling sequences. Nakamura appears to understand that grappling and feeding body parts for submission attempts is the best way for the Gracies to look competent as pro wrestlers but neither party seems entirely comfortable working that style early on. As the match progressed, I felt Nakamura got a better grasp on how to mix that stuff in with his traditional pro wrestling spots. Perhaps even more important, there were times in this match when the Gracies looked comfortable pulling off moves in a pro wrestling environment which is a big step in the right direction for their New Japan careers.
The reason this match was still more fun than good is that Daniels and Rolles were never particularly great fighters and as such, they are not very adept pro wrestlers – at least not at the present. The Gracie matches have been referred to as “fake MMA” in a pejorative manner. The implication there is that the style of these matches is inherently bad. The style is not the problem; the inexperience of the Daniel and Rolles is. Nakamura got big reactions for his knee strikes here because they were utilized as a high spot after the slower earlier build. Sakuraba’s signature leg kicks and jumping stomp worked as high spots as well for the same reason. The Gi choke finish worked very well and got over with the live crowd. One of the Gracies utilized a good-looking roll through Kimura.
This match it not “fake MMA” as opposed to shoot style pro wrestling, despite some attempting to make that distinction. This match was merely a shoot style pro wrestling match that just wasn’t very good largely due to the inexperience and/or ineptness of one of the teams. It is a flaw in execution, not in style.
Sakuraba gets choked out which worked well as the finish. Saku pounces around in frustration post-match which I thought was a nice reaction to help put over the outcome as meaningful. Daniel once again challenges Nakamura to a title match which he accepts for May 25th in Yokohama. Sakuraba takes on Rolles on that same card. Like this tag, they might not be great matches but if New Japan is going to use the Gracies, shoot style matches with Nakamura and Sakuraba constitutes the best usage of them.
Shoot Style | Worthwhile | Intrigue & Uniqueness
Korauken Hall (Tokyo, Japan)
3 Points (Rope Breaks & Certain takedowns)
Wrestle-1 hasn’t produced anything in its abbreviated existence that someone would really need to go out of his way to see. This match does not necessarily change that trend. It is, however, easily the best match I have seen from the promotion and stands up as a pretty good shoot-style match in its own right.
I have watched some other outings from Funaki in this promotion, including a 2 on 1 comedy handicap versus the Brahman Brothers. Funaki was taken out of his element in a lot of those other matches. Clearly, this style of match versus someone like Takayama is much more in his wheelhouse and it shows. The match starts with feeling out as both go for knuckle locks and end up in the clinch.
They go to the mat a couple of minutes in. Takayama’s ground game impressed me. He rolled, moved around, attempted to pass Funaki’s guard and reversed holds with far more athletic ability than I expected given his age and the fact that “athletic ability” was never a trait he likely included on his resume to begin with. Takayama didn’t do much last year in his match on the March U-Spirits Again card, so my hopes weren’t all that high for him this time. I think have Funaki has an opponent this go-around helped, but in any event he looked a lot better.
Most of the match consists fighting for position and submissions on the mat which is all fairly solid, but the standup portion also had some good spots. Takayama hits a pair of nice suplexes and Funaki contributes a hard-fought-for German Suplex.
The latter Takayama suplex costs Funaki his second point, leaving each wrestler one with one point remaining. Perhaps for that reason – neither one would want to risk being put in a hold while on the mat and losing their last point – they go at it standing for really the first time. Takayama tries some knee lifts, but being the awkward Lurch that he is, he is too slow delivering the knees and Funaki is able to avoid the strikes. Funaki lands a series of open hand strikes before landing a big kick to the hand. Takayama does a great tree-falling sell of the kick with gives Funaki the victory via knockout.
If you are looking for a 2014 shoot-style fix this is the best I have seen so far. At about seven minutes, it is a quick and easy match to get through as well (always a positive in my book).
Shoot Style | Worthwhile | Quality
New Japan Pro Wrestling
Bodymaker Coliseum (Osaka, Japan)
Gi Chokes are Legal
It looked like the Gracies got to the Tokyo Dome back on January the 4th, decided that they had this pro wrestling thing figured out and figured they would just stomp on their opponents a bit, play to the crowd, and everything would be fine. It wasn’t, of course. They had a bad match versus Sakuraba and Nagata in Tokyo and I cannot imagine very many people were looking forward to the re-match in Osaka.
Perhaps this match was just the beneficiary of exceedingly low expectations, but I thought it was perfectly fine.
The big difference between the first and second matches were that the Gracies seemingly figured out how a non-pro wrestler, mixed martial artist should approach a pro wrestling match or they had it explained to them. Promotions have used MMA fighters with little to no experience before to good results. Just last year, Yuki Kondo had a perfectly fine match in his presumably first worked match ever versus Hiromitsu Kanehara. It can be done if you basically treat the match – or your portion of the match – as a grappling and/or submission exhibition.
The Gracies got at least some of that the second time around which made for a much better match. Rolles worked some nice ground control spots with Nagata. Daniel hit a smooth fireman’s carry takeover and later on applied a nice arm bar/choke that Sakuraba escaped from in equally smooth fashion. They had a much better idea of how to work the match utilizing their strengths and backgrounds. It still was below “good” levels for shoot-style type work but the difference was readily apparent.
On the other side, Sakuraba busted out his plancha for the second match in a row. It also wouldn’t be a Sakuraba/Gracie fight if a Gracie didn’t lay on his back and Sakuraba didn’t try to pass with a leaping punch. After the punch, there was some nice mat control stuff before Sakuraba got on a submission that was quickly broken up. I called this match “shoot style” in the diagnostics because it was the best fit, though really it was a somewhat normal tag with a lot of submission and ground elements in it.
The end was a bit of a shocker with the Gracies going over on Sakuraba via Gi choke. The reason why became apparent in the immediate post match when Yano challenged the Gracies to a match versus him and Iizuki. That has disaster written all over it. This match proved that the Gracies can get better and can hang when sticking to their MMA-background strengths but in the ring with Iizuki and Yano, none of that will matter.
The bright side is Sakuraba is hopefully done with the Gracies, at least for now. Singles matches versus the likes Nakamura (a re-match of their great 2013 Tokyo Dome match) and Shibata are far more appealing then tags versus the Gracies.
Shoot Style | Common | Spectacle