I was a fan of both of these matches when I watched them a few years ago, so when I read a less-than-favourable review of the '97 match on one of the forums I frequent, I figured I'd go back and watch both to see if they hold up (I had been planning on doing that for quite a while, anyway). Gone are the days where my mind and load would be blown over something like this, but the '96 match was one of my all-time favourite matches at one point, so I still held out hope that I'd enjoy it. Always thought the '97 match was a step down from the previous year's, but I still thought it was one of the best junior matches of the decade on the last run through.
Every version of this I had seen in the past always had the first 5 or so minutes clipped out, but I came across the complete version at some point in the last couple years and burned it onto disc. So this is the complete version. Those opening few minutes pretty much play out like I figured they would; both guys taking it to the mat. I'll get right to the point - I didn't enjoy this nearly as much as I used to. I still think it's a really good match, and going in *expecting* not to like it as much as I used to probably helped, but the first 2/3rds didn't really do much for me. They both pick a limb to work and there's the time-killing matwork, but once they get to the finishing stretch it's mostly forgotten and it becomes another junior heavyweight match where there's a pretty big disconnect between the finishing stretch and everything that comes before it. I'm usually way less bothered by the pre-stretch stuff if I at least get the sense they're actually *trying* to win, or add to the story of the match, rather than kill time before they get to the part that'll be shown on TV... but for the most part I wasn't getting that vibe here. There are a few moments of niggliness where Ohtani will slap Liger like a punk, and he's really good at adding nasty touches here and there like digging his knee into Liger's elbow joint while applying a Fujiwara armbar, but I largely thought it was listless. One thing they are good at is establishing Liger as the top dog and Ohtani as the underdog. Even if you don't know either one of these guys, Liger just carries himself in a way that lets you know he's "the man". Final 7 or so minutes are where things pick up, and the stretch run really takes this to another level. There's a few moments where Ohtani isn't particularly good at selling what's come before (he eats a huge Ligerbomb and is up and about like nothing happened shortly afterwards, which is definitely noticeable compared to the way Liger's selling everything), but the heat is there and there's plenty of drama. They even manage to work a great nearfall in off of Ohtani's work on Liger's arm early on, which is one of the things I always remembered about this. Finish is still great with Ohtani planting Liger with a Dragon Suplex in the middle of the ring, but then he picks him and hits another one, only this time Liger's next to the ropes. He probably wouldn't have been able to kick out, but Ohtani's blown it anyway and he knows it. His reaction is great; you can see him just deflate after that. Liger's final palm strike is a beauty. I could see someone calling this a top juniors match ever, and in some ways I probably still would myself, but I've really gone off this style in recent years, to the point where "this is one of the standouts of a style I otherwise actively dislike" as oposed to "this is fucking awesome".
I was expecting this to fall way off, but I actually thought it held up as being pretty damn awesome. Definitely think this is the better of the two matches now. It still suffers from about 2/3rds of it being sort of disconnected from the final third, but the matwork was much tighter and stiffer here; almost Benoit/Finlay-esque and I actually bought them as trying to use it to "weaken" the other guy as opposed to killing time before the hot finishing run (although that's still what it was, essentially). There's still limb work that's brushed off, but they don't go about it in an "I'm working the leg/arm/neck" kind of way; it was way more gritty than that and Ohtani grinding his knuckles into Liger's elbow one minute then digging his knee into Liger's ankle joint the next didn't strike me as him not knowing what body part he wanted to work as opposed to him just grabbing whatever's there and doing some nasty shit to it. He's obviously much more established here than he was in the 3/96 match and that shows, too. Liger was clearly the dominant one in that match, but here Ohtani's defiant as all Hell and refuses to be bitched out. It leads to some gnarly stiffness on strike exchanges where Ohtani is just desperate to prove he's on Liger's level, so Liger will face fuck him with a shotei. I always remembered the matwork in this being real gritty and this time around doesn't make me think any less of it. Finishing stretch here is even better than the stretch last year. Ohtani's a year older and a year smarter, so the stupid shit he pulled last year won't happen again. He carries himself not too dissimilar to Liger, actually; practically his equal this time around. Really love how they play off the finish to their last match. Ohtani hits the springboard missile dropkick as a set up for the Dragon Suplex like he did last year, then he hits the Dragon Suplex like he did last year, but this time he actually keeps the bridge so he can PIN him instead of letting his emotions screw him over and try something unnecessary. Of course Liger kicks out, but Ohtani isn't completely deflated this time; he's just more determined. From there they do the spot where Liger tries to break Ohtani's face with a shotei, Ohtani ducks, and Liger catches him on the rebound with one anyway. Last year it beat Ohtani, but this year it doesn't keep him down. As a spot that establishes Ohtani's growth since their last match, that's a great fucking spot. Actually that whole sequence was great. Also really like the call back to Ohtani's match with Ultimo Dragon from the J-Crown where he sits Liger on the top turnbuckle so he can hit his top rope hurricanrana, and Liger keeps pushing him away and fighting it off. Ultimo did it at the J-Crown and it cost Ohtani, but this time Ohtani just will not be denied and winds up repeatedly headbutting Liger until he does what he fucking came to do. His look of contempt as Liger continually blasts him in the face with palm strikes at the end was glorious. Hell of a match. Not sure where I'd put rank it among the best junior heavy matches ever, but I thought it held up remarkably well and I was really surprised how much I still dug it. And that's gotta count for something, right?