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SLAM! Wrestling International -- 2000: The Year-In-Review in Japan


2000 Year in Review - Japan

By JOHN F. MOLINARO -- SLAM! Wrestling

Oh what a year in Japan!

Japan may never be the same after 2000 as the landscape of Japanese wrestling was inextricably changed forever. A strong third promotion emerged stemming from the Misawa-All Japan split. New Japan entered the world of pay-per-view. And we said goodbye to two legends, one who called it quits after years of gruelling punishment, the other to kidney failure.

Below are the top ten news stories that helped to shape and mould the year 2000 into the most important year in Japanese wrestling in a long time with analysis into why each development was so influential and significant.

1) NOAH-ALL JAPAN SPLIT

MASANORI SAITO Ever since Giant Baba passed way in 1999, Mitsuharu Misawa had been odds with his wife Motoko Baba. Misawa, President and booker of All Japan in the wake of Baba's death, felt handcuffed by Motoko's insistence that the promotion remain true to her late husband's conservative wrestling vision. Misawa wanted to try new things and take the promotion in a new direction. Speculation ran rampant for months that Misawa was one step away from leaving All Japan to start his own promotion.

The speculation turned into a reality on June 16th as Misawa held a formal press conference to announce he was leaving All Japan to form his own wrestling promotion, Pro Wrestling NOAH. And with that, the landscape of wrestling in Japan was forever changed.

For more than ten years, Misawa was All Japan's 'Steve Austin' or 'The Rock'. He was the cornerstone of the promotion, a former five-time Triple Crown champion and the best wrestler in the world for the entire decade of the 90s. His departure was a huge loss for All Japan, in more ways the one.

Not only did All Japan lose the services of its top star and booker, but also the majority of their top talent. Misawa convinced 27 stars on the All Japan roster including then-Triple Crown champion Kenta Kobashi, Jun Akiyama and a host of others, to follow him to NOAH. Two months later, NOAH debuted at the Differ Ariake pavilion in Tokyo to rave reviews and quickly bypassed All Japan as the number two promotion in Japan.

The Misawa-All Japan split was THE news story in wrestling this past year. Misawa's departure and subsequent starting up of NOAH virtually crippled the once dominant All Japan promotion. Besides losing the bulk of their roster, Misawa succeeded in taking their spot away on NTV, striking another decimating blow to All Japan. As a result, All Japan was forced to replenish their depleted roster with a collection of foreign talent. It also forced All Japan to go to desperate measures and forge an alliance of sorts with rivals New Japan Pro Wrestling, a move that most fans thought they'd never see.

Their house show business tapered off as many fans and reporters speculated that the company would be dead and fold up by the end of the year. And while that did not happen, it can't be disputed Misawa's departure all but killed All Japan. NOAH picked up a great deal of momentum with the future signing of Vader away from All Japan, while presenting an entertaining brand of pro wrestling.

Misawa's decision to go out on his own literally changed the face of Japanese pro wrestling. It gave fans yet another wrestling alternative to choose from, while changing the power structure in Japanese wrestling. Misawa proved that it is the wrestlers, and not the promoters, that can exercise the real power in wrestling, if only they use it wisely. Misawa's decision to leave All Japan and start his own company and convincing the majority of All Japan's roster to follow him serves as a blue print for future wrestlers who want to escape the oppressive and dominating clutches of a promoter. Misawa proved that wrestlers could make a difference and make serious changes, if only they unite and work together for a common good.

For more on NOAH-Misawa split, please see the following stories:

  • Mitsuharu Misawa leaves All Japan
  • Misawa announces new Japanese promotion
  • Editorial: Misawa's departure cripples All Japan
  • Misawa knocks All-Japan off TV
  • Misawa's NOAH Promotion debuts

    2) NEW JAPAN-ALL JAPAN WORK TOGETHER

    MASANORI SAITO With Misawa and the majority of their roster gone, All Japan was left in dire straits. Their roster was virtually depleted, company morale was at an all-time low and those who did stay had serious doubts Motoko Baba would be able to rebuild the promotion.

    With nowhere else to turn, All Japan sought the help of New Japan Pro Wrestling, its long time rival. Baba convinced New Japan about the benefits of working together as both groups began to develop a plan for an All Japan vs. New Japan storyline. The first steps were made in August when All Japan's Masa Fuchi appeared at a New Japan show to address the live audience. Challenges were made back and forth, leading to the first match on September 2nd between Masa Chono and Fuchi at an All Japan show. Two weeks later Toshiaki Kawada appeared at a New Japan show to issue a challenge to IWGP World Heavyweight champion Kensuke Sasaki.

    The exchange of talent continued as stars from both companies periodically appeared on each other's house shows. Then on October 9th, Kawada defeated Sasaki in a non-title match in the main event before 64 000 fans at the Tokyo Dome. This 'dream match' captured the imaginations of hardcore fans that thought they would never see the day when one of All Japan's top stars wrestled the IWGP World champ.

    The second marquee dream match took place at New Japan's '2n Judgement' pay-per-view in December as Yuji Nagata and Takashi Iizuka wrestled Kawada and Fuchi to a time limit draw. One month later, Sasaki defeated Kawada at the Tokyo Dome in the finals of a tournament to crown a new IWGP World champ. Within the span of three months, the New Japan vs. All Japan feud produced three match-of-the-year candidates as the angle became the talk of Japanese wrestling.

    The working agreement effectively saved All Japan. Had it not been for the inter-promotional angle, it is doubtful All Japan would have been able to survive in the wake of the Misawa departure. It created a new interest in their product from fans that believed they were going to close down and built some much needed momentum for the struggling promotion. New Japan also benefited as the angle served to rejuvenate their stagnant product by providing fans with fresh faces and hot dream matches, and becoming the hottest wrestling in promotion for the last three months of 2000.

    The historical significance of this working agreement can't be understated. These two companies have been heated rivals ever since their inceptions and have engaged in a bitter promotional war for the last twenty years. That they would put their differences aside and were able to work out a program where neither side looks stronger than the other, is nothing short of miraculous. If you could imagine the WWF and WCW co-promoting an angle together where both of their top stars gain clean wins over each other and both sides come out looking strong, then you can understand how big the New Japan vs. All Japan feud really is.

    For more on NOAH-Misawa split, please see the following stories:

  • Kawada wins Dome Showdown
  • '2nd Judgement' ends in stalemate

    3) JUMBO TSURUTA DIES

    MASANORI SAITO The wrestling world lost another legend this past year as Jumbo Tsuruta died from complications after undergoing a kidney transplant operation in the Philippines. He was 49 years old.

    Although not as politically powerful as All Japan founder Giant Baba or New Japan founder Antonio Inoki, Tsuruta was considered by many fans and reporters to be the greatest Japanese pro wrestler of all time. A former Olympian, Tsuruta made his debut in 1973 in Texas and soon after returned to Japan where he started with Baba's All Japan promotion.

    Tsuruta carried the promotion from the mid 80s to the early 90s with his unmatched ring work and unique ability to have a five-star match every time out. A former AWA World champion, Tsuruta will long be remembered for his classic encounters against Ric Flair, Mitsuharu Misawa, Hansen, Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen and Rick Martel. Tsuruta was the first ever-Triple Crown champion, defeating Stan Hansen in a historic unification match in 1989. That he became the first champion was no coincidence, as Baba wanted to establish the legitimacy of the title right away and the selection of Tsuruta, arguably the best wrestler in the world at the time, was a no-brainer.

    Tsuruta's influence is immeasurable. His legacy of a strong, stiff and physically taxing style, striving to make the work in the ring look as real believable as possible, can be seen in the current ring work of top stars of today such as Misawa, Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada.

    More than anything else, however, Tsuruta will be remembered for the quiet grace he exhibited away from the ring. Although he was the best wrestler in Japan for most of his career, Tsuruta remained modest and humbled by his success, never feeling the need to remind fans and reporters how good he really was... a lesson that a lot of the top stars in WCW and the WWF should learn.

    For more on Tsuruta, please see the following stories:

  • Jumbo Tsuruta dies of kidney failure
  • Friends remember Jumbo Tsuruta
  • Jumbo, Baba and The Destroyer
  • Jumbo Tsuruta memorial planned
  • Editorial: Tsuruta the best ever from Japan

    4) NEW JAPAN/NOAH ENTER PPV

    MASANORI SAITO Pay-per-view came to Japan in a big way in 2000. Besides FMW's monthly pay-per-view shows available from Japan's Direct TV, New Japan and Pro Wrestling NOAH staged their first pay-per-view events in history.

    New Japan Pro Wrestling entered the pay-per-view fray on July 30th, presenting its first event from Yokohama. New Japan booker Riki Choshu came out of retirement to defeat FMW founder Atsushi Onita in a barbed wire exploding death match before a sold out crowd of 18,000 fans at Yokohama Arena. Although the in-ring product was a mixed affair, the pay-per-view was a big success, drawing impressive buy rate numbers for Japan. New Japan followed that up with their '2nd Judgement' pay-per-view in December, featuring a New Japan vs. All Japan tag team main event.

    Pro Wrestling NOAH got into the game as well, broadcasting their two debut shows on August 5th and 6th on a tape delayed pay-per-view basis. A second show in September was broadcasted and the upstart group finished the year by airing their biggest show in company history on December 23rd the next day of pay-per-view.

    Pay-per-view is still in its infancy in Japan as the viewing universe is comparatively small to the North America's. Still, the advent of pay-per-view in Japan provides companies like New Japan that struggled a bit at the box office this year and a company like NOAH that's just getting started, another valuable revenue stream. New Japan appear to be pursing the pay-per-view market more aggressively, planning to stage monthly pay-per-view events like their American counterparts in 2001.

    The challenge that companies in Japan face regarding selling pay-per-views is a steep one. Japanese fans are used to watching the big matches for free on network television. Critics believe there is a mindset among Japanese fans that they won't pay for the pleasure of watching a program they used to be able to watch for free. The pay-per-view universe in Japan is very small, making many officials within New Japan question how pragmatic it is to run pay-per-views for such a small audience. And if more fans don't order future pay-per-views, what are the chances of the viewing universe ever expanding?

    For more, please see the following stories:

  • New Japan's 1st PPV a blast
  • '2nd Judgement' ends in stalemate
  • Kobashi king of NOAH PPV

    5) NIPPON TV DROPS ALL JAPAN

    MASANORI SAITO For 28 years, Nippon TV and All Japan had a mutually fruitful relationship. All Japan's flagship weekly TV program had aired on NTV since its formation in 1972, providing quality programming and high ratings for the national broadcaster. Some of the biggest and most important events in All Japan's history were broadcast on NTV forging a relationship between the two companies unlike any other in the sport. So close was the working relationship that wrestling fans instinctively thought of both companies as one entity.

    The marriage came to an abrupt end on June 19th when NTV announced that it would cancel All Japan's program after 28 years and give their spot on the station and an improved time slot to Misawa's NOAH group.

    The cancellation of 'All Japan Power 30' was a tremendous blow to the promotion, similar to TNN's decision to cancel ECW's program this year. NTV's decision left All Japan without a broadcast forum to air their shows, effectively changing the way All Japan did business. They became primarily a house show circuit operation, no longer able to rely on ad revenues as a source of income. The cancellation of the show also made it difficult for the promotion to promote their upcoming house shows.

    The last edition of 'Power 30' aired two days later, drawing to an end an incredible run of All Japan programs on NTV. Speculation that the company would fold began to run rampant, as many didn't see how All Japan could survive this latest of setbacks. Amazingly, All Japan carried on, despite no national TV program and finished out the year.

    Motoko Baba soon filed a lawsuit against Misawa for tampering with All Japan's business dealings with NTV and gained a small victory as Misawa's TV program have as of yet aired on NTV due to a legal matter. Misawa's shows are expected to begin airing sometime this spring.

    For more on NTV, please see the following stories:

  • Misawa knocks All-Japan off TV

    6) STAN HANSEN RETIRES

    STAN HANSEN A storied and incredible career came to an end on November 19 as Motoko Baba announced that All Japan star Stan Hansen was retiring. Hansen had been suffering from lumbago and decided to call it a career. His official retirement ceremony will take place this Sunday at All Japan's Tokyo Dome spectacular.

    A mainstay with the promotion since 1981, Hansen was the most popular foreign wrestler ever to compete in Japan. He was the backbone of the promotion from the mid 80s to early 90s, competing in five-star matches against the promotion's top domestic talent. Hansen played the archetypal monster-heel in Japan, laying the path for the likes of Vader, Bam Bam Bigelow, Steve Williams and Terry Gordy to follow.

    All in all, Hansen competed on over 130 tours of Japan since his first visit in 1975. A former four-time Triple Crown champion, Hansen was revered almost like a god in Japan. His popularity transcended mere wrestling as he became a cultural icon. Millions of fans grew up watching Hansen on NTV, making him one of the most recognizable foreigners in Japan.

    His departure signals the end of an era for All Japan. With Tsuruta and Giant Baba gone and Hansen set to retire, Genichiro Tenryu is the only member of the 'old guard' remaining from the company's glory days. Although his work has become suspect as of late due to his nagging condition, the loss of Hansen is incalculable to All Japan. They're left with one less major star and drawing card to call upon during these desperate and trying times. All that remains is his influence to live on in the stars of tomorrow.

    For more on Stan Hansen, please see the following stories:

  • Stan Hansen announces retirement
  • Editorial: Stan Hansen's fight will continue

    7) GENICHIRO TENRYU RETURNS TO ALL JAPAN

    MASANORI SAITO On April 26th, 1990 Genichiro Tenryu, long-time main event star with All Japan Pro Wrestling, shocked the wrestling world by leaving the company to sign a contract with a major Optical company in Japan and became President of WAR, a new wrestling promotion they helped to finance.

    The split was a bitter one as Tenryu completely caught All Japan off guard with this move, as company owner Giant Baba said he'd never take Tenryu back as long as he lived.

    On July 2nd 2000, and over 18 months since Baba's death, Tenryu returned to All Japan, shaking hands with Baba's widow, and new owner Motoko and announcing that he was returning to All Japan. The wrestling media, not to mention long time fans were shocked! To put it in a context that most fans might understand, Tenryu's return to All Japan would be like Hulk Hogan returning to the WWF after all these years.

    Still reeling from the mass exodus of talent that left All Japan for NOAH, Ms. Baba buried the hatchet and ignored the pleas of long-time employees who told her not to ignore her late husband's wishes by taking Tenryu back. Many believed she had no choice. Her roster was almost entirely depleted and she was in desperate need of new major stars.

    Tenryu's return helped All Japan fight off almost certain ruin. In his first match back in July, he reformed his famous 'Revolution' tag team partnership with protege Toshiaki Kawada. Two months later, Ms. Baba shocked wrestling pundits by having Tenryu win the Triple Crown title in a tournament final over Kawada.

    While it can't be argued that Toshiaki Kawada saved All Japan by not leaving, Tenryu certainly played a pivotal role by adding new blood and star power to the hurting company, allowing them to dismiss calls from the public to shut down entirely.

    For more on Genichiro Tenryu, please see the following stories:

  • Tenryu wins Triple Crown

    8) KAZUSHI SAKURABA NAMED WRESTLER OF THE YEAR

    MASANORI SAITO Each year, the Japanese Sports Media awards for pro wrestling are handed out. Journalists and reporters from a variety of daily newspapers and magazines vote on the year's best. These awards are very prestigious in Japan as fans and people within the wrestling industry wait each year with baited breath for the announcement of the award winners.

    This year history was made as Kazushi Sakuraba, a shoot fighter with a pro wrestling background, was selected 'Wrestler of the Year'. The selection of Sakuraba was historical because many fans don't even consider him a pro wrestler as he earned the award based on his performances for PRIDE, a mixed martial arts promotion in Japan featuring shoot matches that aren't considered within the 'traditional' pro wrestling style. Sakuraba, a wrestler with the Takada Dojo promotion, made headlines in PRIDE in 2000, going through and defeating practically everybody in the famous Gracie family.

    Still, many fans, wrestlers and industry journalists questioned the selection, citing the fact that Sakuraba earned the awards for his performance in a shoot organization, not a traditional 'worked' pro wrestling company. Many critics believed that a separate category for shoot fighters should have been established, thus eliminating what they viewed as an 'apples and oranges' comparison and avoiding the controversy of selecting a shoot fighter for an award that has always been won by a 'traditional' pro wrestler.

    Sakuraba's selection raised several interesting questions. What constitutes pro wrestling? What are the concrete definitions of a pro wrestler and a shoot fighter? Is a shoot fighter who works a pro wrestling match any less of a 'real' fighter? Is a pro wrestler who competes in a shoot fight any less of a pro wrestler? What about when the line between work and shoot is blurred in a pro wrestling match? Does that make it any less of a pro wrestling match? If nothing else, the selection of Sakuraba instigated some interesting debates among fans and challenged them to think about their notions of what pro wrestling is.

    9) NEW JAPAN BURIES JR. HEAVYWEIGHTS

    MASANORI SAITO For years, New Japan's junior heavyweight division was the envy of the entire wrestling world. New Japan's junior heavyweight division was the model upon which WCW built their critically acclaimed Cruiserweight division back in 1996. The division was an invaluable resource for New Japan, stocked with an endless reservoir of the best junior heavyweights in the world and routinely staging the best matches on the planet.

    In 2000, New Japan's once indestructible fortress was reduced to mere rubble. Junior booker Jushin "Thunder" Liger spent less time focusing on the division, as he became a regular competitor in the heavyweight division. New Japan booker Riki Choshu became increasingly and inexplicably disenfranchised with the division, relegating their matches to lower positions on major shows. Choshu booked several questionable matches throughout the year, jobbing out world-class juniors to wrestlers in the heavyweight division. Koji Kanemoto, long considered pound-for-pound the best wrestler in the world, put over mid-card heavyweight Don Frye and a past-his-prime Tatsumi Fujinami on two Tokyo Dome shows.

    Shinjiro Ohtani became so disillusioned with the way the junior heavyweights were being used that he began to voice his disapproval. His reward? A ticket to England where he wrestled before small, diminutive crowds on several indy shows before being sent to Calgary to train with trainer Joe Daigo in order to bulk up. Ohtani has since returned and is now competing in the heavyweight division.

    It's well known that Choshu was never a big fan of the junior heavyweights. He sees the future of the company in building around its world champion and his protege Kensuke Sasaki. Still, one has to wonder if it's wise to sacrifice good business sense for the sake of some personal preference as to what constitutes wrestling. One of New Japan's strengths was that it presented a well-rounded wrestling product that offered something for everybody. With the complete burial of the junior heavyweight in 2000, it's clear to see that Choshu is in danger of alienating a substantial portion of his loyal audience.

    For more on the junior heavyweights, please see the following stories:

  • Takaiwa wins Super Juniors Tournament
  • History of the Best of the Super Juniors Tourney
  • Countdown to Best of the Super Juniors Tourney
  • New Japan tourney turns 10
  • Junior Heavyweights take centre stage in Japan
  • Kendo Ka Shin wins 1999 Tournament

    10) MASAKAZU FUKUDA DIES

    The Japanese wrestling community was sent into shock when New Japan star Masakazu Fukuda collapsed in the ring during a match in Kesennuma on April 14th. Five days later, Fukuda died due to complications from a cerebral haemorrhage in the hospital.

    Katsuyori Shibata nailed Fukuda with a routine elbow drop during the match. The following spot called for Fukuda to kick out. Instead, Fukuda collapsed suddenly to the mat and began snoring. Fukuda was immediately rushed to the hospital where he underwent emergency brain surgery that night. He remained in a coma for four days before passing on. He was only 27.

    One of the rising stars of New Japan, Fukuda was only in his fourth year as a pro wrestler. He had joined New Japan in 1998 after toiling in the Japanese independents for two years. He was seen as a future star and was being groomed by New Japan for a top spot in their world-renowned junior heavyweight division.

    Fukuda had a history of head problems, having suffered a cerebral haemorrhage six months earlier. Fukuda had to undergo emergency brain surgery and was out of action before returning in February. Almost as a sign of things to come, Fukuda collapsed in the ring again in his first match back. Fukuda's fatal match on April 14th was his first since collapsing in February.

    Fukuda's tragic death was the third in Japan in as many years stemming from a wrestler collapsing in the ring. His death raised serious questions into where the responsibility of the promoters lies and the quality of medical care provided by the promoters for their wrestlers. New Japan had knowledge of Fukuda's previous health problems and knew that he had collapsed once before during a match. Fukuda had passed a complete physical by New Japan physicians and was allowed to return. Still, one has to wonder if New Japan should or could have done more to prevent this unfortunate incident.

    FULL 2000 YEAR-IN-REVIEW COVERAGE

    2000: The Year-In-Review
    2000 Year in Review - Japan
    2000 Year in Review - Mexico
    Top 10 stories in Mexico of 2000
    2000 Year-End Awards




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