Wednesday, 24 November 2021

We conquered 1987, now how about some 1988 New Japan!

Antonio Inoki v Riki Choshu (New Japan, 2/4/88)

I thought this fell surprisingly flat. Straight from the bell Choshu comes running out the corner with a dropkick and hits two lariats, so at that point I'm thinking okay it's going to be one of THOSE matches and I'm ready for the roof to go. It just never really kept hold of me for very long after that. I liked Inoki's dazed selling on the floor, the way he'd try and get back in the ring only to be knocked back down again, his whole demeanour in the face of Choshu's thuggery, and Choshu is always going to be interesting playing king of the mountain in a stretch like that. He paces around and threatens to swing at the ref' for restraining him, always eager to be dishing out punishment while being smart enough to not go out after Inoki and risk it backfiring. Then he gets a little too mouthy with the ref' and Inoki hits an apron enziguri, which is a pretty great transition spot. From there it simmered without ever really coming to the boil. They did some decent stuff and they definitely grabbed me again when Inoki punched a divot in Choshu's forehead. This was Inoki channelling whatever he unleashed on Kintaro Oki back in the day, dishing out receipts for earlier in the match. Choshu hits a real gusher and he might not be the most expressive or dramatic seller, but I sure bought him being in danger here. The finish felt like an Inoki finish, in that it left us with more questions than answers. 

Antonio Inoki v Big Van Vader (New Japan, 7/29/88)

This was the business. I remembered not a single thing about it, but it was my #31 on the DVDVR New Japan set so I must've thought highly of it back in the distant past (of 2009, which is fuckin DISTANT now, boys). I loved the start of it. Vader is a menace and before the bell he chucks Inoki out the ring, then does his pre-match ceremonial war dance with his huge mastodon helmet thing. He drops to one knee and roars, arms held aloft as this ridiculous helmet sprays steam into the air, so Inoki just enziguris him in the head because to hell with standing on ceremony. The story here was all about Inoki's persistence against Vader's dominance. Vader is inevitable, a thing whose advancement you can only divert if you're lucky, but never halt completely. He really walks that line amazingly between smothering an opponent and giving them just enough where it's plausible, largely because his selling is so good, and I thought his selling was sensational in this. He picks up a knock on his arm early and Inoki immediately hits it with an enziguri, because of course you would because you need to take advantage of every chink in the armour that presents itself. Whenever Inoki grabs one of those armbars Vader bellows to the heavens, so maybe every monster can be felled after all. It's just that Vader can swing momentum again with one big fist, or by flinging his entire body at Inoki like he's a small vehicle. There was one part where Vader had Inoki in a seated abdominal stretch, pulled Inoki's head back by the hair to expose his face, and just clubbed him with half a dozen hammer blows. The match finally turns when they end up on the floor again and Vader tries to bludgeon Inoki with some sort of sceptre, only Inoki moves and Vader jars his hand when he hits the post, so Inoki picks it up and stabs him in the bad arm. Vader comes up with a bloody arm and the close-up shot is properly gruesome. He's shrieking like a bear caught in a trap and it looks like Inoki full on stabbed him in the arm with this thing, a real nasty gash just streaming blood. Of course Inoki sticks with what brung him and hits another enziguri to the arm, and the vocal selling from Vader is legit some of the best I've ever seen (or heard). It was almost disturbing and if he was somewhat less monstrous you might even feel sympathy for him. The finish is also spectacular. If some predators like to play with their prey then the sight of his own blood hit Vader with some urgency, because he tried to finish things quickly after that. He slammed Inoki in the corner to set up the moonsault (or something else off the top if he wasn't using the moonsault yet), and even though Inoki retreated into the middle of the ring Vader was not for hanging about. He leaps off with a clothesline, but Inoki catches him upon landing and drags him to the mat with a Fujiwara armbar. Vader howling at the moon in agony afterwards, blood continuing to flow from his wound, while ring boys sheepishly try to usher him backstage was a pretty incredible bit of theatre. 

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