Been on a Takayama kick as of late and decided to revisit his 2002 run to see how I felt about it after however long. Shockingly enough, it's still fucking boss. Also watched the match where he's challenging Kobashi for the Triple Crown from 2000 since, for whatever reason, I had never bothered to check it out before.
Yoshihiro Takayama v Kenta Kobashi (All Japan, 5/26/00)
Sort of Takayama's coming out party as the badass heavyweight shit-kicker people know and love. This is just a terrific, terrific match. Kobashi's getting checked by the ref' pre-bell and Takayama kicks him in the head and murders him with a running knee for a nearfall in the first 10 seconds. And that basically sets the stage, because from that point on Takayama tries to take his head off and Kobashi gets absolutely pissed and tries to kill him and it's just the kind of slugfest I was hoping for. Takayama's one of the best strikers ever and he's plastering Kobashi with kicks and knees. The knees are put over huge here; Kobashi really sells them like they could be the death of him. Then Tak goes after Kobashi's lariat arm and Kobashi's selling for the rest of the match is balls out awesome. It's not full on in-your-face "My arm is fucked here" selling, but he barely does a thing with it on offence. Takayama will elbow or kick him in the face and Kobashi's stuck throwing backhanders with his much less powerful left hand, and you get the sense he's really in a big uphill battle because of it. He's a rottweiler with a bad paw trying to out-scrap a Grizzly bear. They do the same thing in their '04 GHC match, but they sort of move away from the arm work by the end and Kobashi doesn't sell it nearly as well, or as consistently, as he does here. When he throws the big "This is gonna hurt me, but it's gonna hurt YOUR ugly ass more" lariat in the '04 match, it feels like a big desperation spot. That's what it SHOULD feel like. Here it feels like an even bigger moment, because his selling all the way to end is better, so it stands out more. Then they do the straight punch exchange and Kobashi winds up blasting Takayama in the ears about 15 times with his left arm and wrist, barely throwing anything with the right. When he unloads with the final lariat, it's the perfect "This will hurt you more than me" spot. He could throw a lariat with the left, but who knows if that'll be enough? He'll throw the right instead because he knows it's gonna put this big ugly motherfucker down; the fact it doesn't do his own arm any good is circumstantial. This match was fucking great.
Yoshihiro Takayama v Yuji Nagata (New Japan, 5/2/02)
It's taken me a few years to finally get hip to this match, but I think I've finally got the love for it. Been about 2 years since I last saw it, so I'm not quite sure what I thought was missing before, but watching it last night it really seemed like a perfect balance of shoot and pro-style. I've never bothered to smarten up to the exact definitions of "Strong Style" and what have you, but this just felt like a "New Japan Style Match." Like a 2002 version of Akira Maeda v Yoshiaki Fujiwara (when they wrestled in New Japan, anyway). I mean, the Madea/Fujiwara matches I've seen have all been more shoot style than pro-style, but this was definitely less about the shoot and more about taking both styles and combining them. They still have the Maeda/Fujiwara traits, though - Takayama is a beast on the feet, Nagata can rip it up on the mat, Nagata gets his ass handed to him and rules it as guy fighting from the bottom... the roles aren't identical and this isn't a straight 'stand-up v submission' match, but the comparisons are there to be made and, to me, it felt like the best possible 'Maeda v Fujiwara with a Twist.' Nagata is just a stellar underdog here, fired up like CRAZY, shouting for Takayama to fucking bring it, has these incredible spaced out facial expressions after Takayama pummels him, etc. And most importantly he FEARLESSLY eats Takayama's strikes. At one point Takayama cuts him off with a huge knee lift and Nagata flies like 8 fucking feet in the air. Finish is the perfect toe-toe-toe strike exchange for a match like this. I haven't seen a ton of New Japan from the 00s, but I'd be surprised if there are very many IWGP Title matches as good as this over the course of the decade.
Yoshihiro Takayama v Manabu Nakanishi (New Japan, 6/7/02)
Really simple match, probably the best of Nakanishi's career. It's mostly built around simple power spots and them beating the holy motherfuck out of each other. Takayama throws the knees like he's Takayama and Nakanishi chops him to shreds, and that's a large part of this match, just those two guys lighting each other up. Nakanishi has a kind of US powerhouse wrestler moveset where he does stuff like a spear, a torture rack and an iron claw. He brings all of that and Takayama makes it all seem deadly by continually having to find ways to counter it. Nakanishi hits the big stuff like a bulldog on the ramp, but Takayama is great at finding ways to counter the simple stuff. He counters the torture rack by putting on a choke while he's up in Nakanishi's shoulders, which he then turns into a bulldog. He counters the claw with a triangle choke. And best of all he counters the spear by kneeing Nakanishi's sternum in two. The finish has Nakanishi going for a last ditch attempt at another spear and Takayama just obliterates him with a knee. This is a totally excellent performance from Takayama, who makes otherwise standard looking offence look deadly, while eating as well as giving out a shit load of punishment with strikes to create a base for the match. It's Takayama's show and it's really fucking good.
Yoshihiro Takayama v Kensuke Sasaki (New Japan, 8/3/02)
Man I am all about the Takayama slugfests right now and this is exactly the kind of slugfest I wanted from these two. I mean this has some serious stiffness to it. You expect that from these two, really, but still. Takayama in these sub-15 minute ass-stomp-fests is one of my favourite things in wrestling at the moment, and this convinced me to check out that Sugiura match from last year where they apparently stomp ass. Or did they have more than one? Fuck if I know, but I want to see it. Also feel like re-watching Kawada/Sasaki from 10/00 again because that's another match I've never really "got" like most have, but I'm on a slugfest kick and those two beat the shit out of each other so why not? Finish here is awesome; it's like the Takayama/Frye fight from PRIDE where they just stand in the middle of the ring and smash lumps out of each other. Takayama's fucking crazy. I guess Sasaki is too, but there's doing a finish like this and then there's doing a finish like this 2 months after Don Frye caved your skull in. I haven't seen all of Takayama's G-1 run from '02 so I'm really stoked about checking out the Yoshi and Nishimura matches.