Kiyoshi Tamura v Volk Han (RINGS, 1/22/97)
These two were arguably the two best wrestlers in the world in '97 (although I'd still go to bat for Eddy), and this was the kind of phenomenal match you'd expect out of them at this stage. Feels more "even" than their first match, in that Tamura doesn't seem to be carving out openings through surprise as much as natural ability now. Loved how he took the initiative and started dominating on the feet, mostly with kicks, and the spot where he push kicks Han in the chest for a down like he did in the '96 match was awesome. Han getting wise to it and being able to ultimately use the disadvantage on the feet to score the win is just total Han. This is probably an all-time top 25 match for me.
Kiyoshi Tamura v Akira Maeda (RINGS 3/28/97)
Man this fucking ruled. It's not a great match, but Tamura is as fired up here as I've ever seen him and it really felt like he wanted to win this more than anything else in the world. His look of utter "fuck you" defiance when Maeda shoots in for the first time and tries to take his ankle is just amazing, and the crowd reaction at that moment is one of the best I've seen in a long time. Match is actually a bit spartan, but Maeda has an incredible aura and the charisma of both guys really makes it. I had also never seen this before and wasn't sure who won, so I was losing my shit at the end. I wanted Tamura to get to the ropes about as much as everybody else in that building did, and it's not often I get drawn into a match like that anymore. Has to count for something, right?
Kiyoshi Tamura v Christopher Haseman (RINGS, 4/4/97)
This was really bare-bones, but it was short enough for it not to drag and I enjoyed it. Haseman has really quick kicks and can rifle them off in a blink, but he seems reluctant to get too close to Tamura early. Tamura doesn't have the leg speed as Haseman, but whenever he lands anything, even if it's a leg kick that isn't likely to do any damage, the crowd pop pretty big. Largely feels like a cautious affair, like two fighters coming into a fight blind, not having any idea of how good or bad their opponent is. Final exchange here is pretty beautiful – Haseman shoots in to take Tamura's leg, but Tamura sprawls and winds up on top. He has side control initially, manages to secure the mount and then slowly works towards locking in the triangle, finally rolling onto his back so Haseman has nowhere to go. Nothing necessarily flashy about it, but a fitting finish to a match that was nothing flashy, period.
Kiyoshi Tamura v Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (RINGS, 4/22/97)
Their half hour draw a year later is pretty much a classic and something you can throw on a 'Definitive Shoot Style Matches' list. This isn’t as good as that, but it's half as long and works as a great "lead-in". I'm not entirely sure if this is their first match together or not, but it felt that way at points; both guys sizing each other up on the feet, not really going balls out on the mat like they would the following year. Couple great stand-up exchanges here, culminating with Tamura landing a palm strike to the body and then a right hook to the face, and Kohsaka's staggered sell of the blow was amazing (assuming it was "selling" at all); stumbling backwards trying to stay on his feet, but only managing to do so long enough for Tamura to close the gap and score the knockdown. A lot of this actually felt like a legit shoot, which is either a testament to both guys or my head's up my own ass for thinking it's a work. Either way it was bossy stuff.