In the previous instalment of this retrospective series, I explored the early stages of their feud between Katsuhiko Nakajima and KENTA and the relationship between their respective father-figures, Kensuke Sasaki and Kenta Kobashi. In 2008, Sasaki would lead Nakajima and other trainees from his upstart promotion Kensuke Office into Pro Wrestling NOAH in an ‘invasion storyline,’ and the task would fall upon Kobashi and KENTA to hold the fort and defend the honour of their home promotion in a series of tag and singles matches. Amidst all of this, Nakajima and KENTA were both rookies in their mid-twenties, trying to carve out their own paths in professional wrestling. The exchanges between them were representative of a juvenile understanding of what a professional wrestler should be, filled with fiery passion. It was only after their 53-minute elimination tag match at Korakuen Hall in August 2008 that the two would follow the example set by their elders and shake hands, in front of a supportive audience. It did not mark the end of their feud, but it was a sign of growth and emotional maturity.
In a post-match interview after the elimination tag match, Nakajima restated his desire to continue fighting KENTA. This time, there would be less anger, less youthful rage. This would be about two men determined to be the best, each committed to defeat the other to do it. They would have a trilogy of singles matches in 2009, which together stand as a shining example of some of the most exhilarating and dramatic Junior Heavyweight wrestling of the 2000s. This instalment of this series is about these matches, together with a tag match from the same year, but it is also about the pains of growing up and how circumstances can push us into conflict with those who we otherwise might have much in common with.
The story continues…
After the conclusion of the feud between Kensuke Office and NOAH, KENTA and Nakajima would come to blows in the Junior Heavyweight Tag League in NOAH, with Nakajima and Kota Ibushi achieving a victory over KENTA and Ishimori. The latter team would advance to win the tournament finals. When the two clashed in a tag match later that month, they once again shook hands at the conclusion of a 35-minute time-limit draw. A newfound emotional maturity and respect had emerged between them. More to the point, the Kensuke Office invasion was over: there was no reason for conflict between them.
Later that month, Nakajima would challenge technical specialist Bryan Danielson for the GHC Junior Heavyweight Title and lose in 23 minutes. Only a month later, KENTA would successfully take the title from Danielson. In a smart piece of long-term storytelling, the rivalry between the two continued to simmer away even as they did not wrestle each other. KENTA could do what Nakajima could not, and you get the sense that he is always one step ahead.
11 February 2009. Korakuen Hall, Tokyo. Kensuke Office Take The Dream Vol. 7
Four months later, Nakajima would commit once again to challenging for the GHC Junior Heavyweight Title, this time against KENTA and on his home turf in Kensuke Office. It would be the second ever singles-match between the two, and the shifting relationship is immediate, with the usual strikes being replaced by a considered lock-up and test of strength. You might expect Nakajima to slot neatly into the babyface role in front of his home crowd, but he has a renewed sense of confidence, replacing his full-throttle speed and intensity with an exacting, calculated style aimed at wearing KENTA down. He shockingly hits KENTA with his own finisher, the Go To Sleep (GTS) almost immediately, before a bevy of hard knee-strikes and submissions in the middle of the ring. The agility is still there, but it is less aimless; openings are identified and closed off with devastating sequences that target KENTA’s head and midriff. KENTA nonetheless is not easy to wear down, and responds to much of Nakajima’s offence with guile that contrasts with the sheer velocity displayed by his opponent.
When Nakajima goes for a plancha over the top-rope to the outside, KENTA kicks him in the midriff and wisely rolls into the middle of the ring to recover. His vulnerable figure baits Nakajima back into the ring, before suddenly reviving and delivering a swan-dive dropkick, as well as a series of running knees. The two are by now intimately familiar with each other, transitioning one another’s moves to gain an upper-hand. A tense sequence on the top turnbuckle ends with KENTA hitting a Falcon Arrow to the floor, which appears to render him unconscious. Two ring-hands check on Nakajima while KENTA attempts to roll back into the ring, only to find Nakajima is somehow pulling him away from the apron. He resists elbows and through sheer force of will alone executes a trademark German Suplex onto the floor. Such is the impact of this brutal war of attrition that Nakajima tries to stand and collapses again, repeatedly failing to pull himself up on either the railing of the ring-apron. Even when both men have climbed into the ring and avoided a count-out draw, they lie more or less motionless on either side before slowly climbing to their feet.
In the poignant callback sequence that follows, Nakajima goes for a German Suplex but cannot lift KENTA, as he grabs onto the top-rope with both hands. Previously, Sasaki was there to assist Nakajima and land their patented triple-german. Here, Nakajima is left to struggle alone before a KENTA lariat turns him inside-out. He sits on his knees before the Kensuke Office logo, waiting for the running knee that would spell the end. He has to do something different. He desperately clutches the leg and turns it into an ankle lock in the middle of the ring. As KENTA thrashes, Nakajima locks it in fully. It isn’t enough, but it shows his continued growth.
The two throw everything they have at each other and none of it seems to be enough, as if locked in a perpetual state of conflict. Nakajima eats a GTS and kicks out, followed by three brutal, piercing kicks to the head. KENTA goes for a final pinfall, before pulling away at the two-count and looking defiantly at the crowd. It was about competition, but now it has become a matter of pride. Here, in Korakuen Hall, in front of the Kensuke Office fans, he wants to put Nakajima away with his finisher. And then, somehow, Nakajima hits a hurricanrana, eats a big boot and lands a violent thrust-kick. An aztec suplex and a spinning kick to the back of the head give him a resolute victory and make him GHC Junior Champion for the first time.
It was a result born from resilience and ingenuity, and from KENTA allowing his pride to get the better of him. For Nakajima, it was also representative of his almost obsessional commitment to surpassing KENTA. “It was only a coincidence that it was a title match,” he explained in the post-match interview. “The merit of the title depends on how I move forward with it.” And move forward he did. The next title match would follow only nine days later in Pro Wrestling NOAH, once again against KENTA.
1 March 2009. Nippon Budokan, Tokyo. NOAH The Second Navigation 2009.
The decision to run another singles match less than two weeks after KENTA lost the belt was a curious one – rematch clauses are less typical in Japan than in US pro wrestling, especially when the defending champion is beaten decisively and without interference. The reason here is financial: the previous title-match had taken place in Korakuen Hall at a Kensuke Office show in front of 2,100 fans. Running the match again for seven times that number of people in the Budokan ensured that both companies received a payday from the much-hyped feud. The Budokan, too, as NOAH’s home venue, was fertile ground for emotional symbolism. In the main event, Sasaki would be defending the GHC Heavyweight Championship against Jun Akiyama. Like KENTA, Akiyama was a protege of Kobashi and a relative rookie at the time of the exodus from All Japan. Both had become crucial to the critical and commercial success of NOAH in the last nine years, and their challenges coinciding on the same night against the forces from Kensuke Office was no accident.
If the handshake between KENTA and Nakajima had been a brand new start between the pair, separate from the conflict between their promotions and mentors, KENTA’s loss of the GHC Junior Heavyweight Title had created plenty of room for antagonism to develop organically. There had been traces of spite in their last match, like KENTA faking a knee-drop over the top rope and flicking his heel into Nakajima’s face. Now, KENTA’s pride and Nakajima’s compulsive need to surpass his rival were being thrown into the mix. At the Budokan, we see the two once again trading forearms as soon as the bell rings. The violence is not just a callback to their earlier matches: it also represents a struggle over the title that has come between them and more specifically what that title represents.
Nakajima soon gets the upper hand in this early exchange, catching a chest kick and wrenching it into a vicious dragon screw. The move, invented by former New Japan ace Tatsumi Fujinami, would become a signature move for a number of stars in the company, including Masahiro Chono, Keiji Mutoh and Hiroyoshi Tenzan. Such was the inherent symbolism of the maneuver that it was purposefully selected by Hiroshi Tanahashi in the mid-2000s to evoke the earlier golden age of the company and a return to a more traditional style of professional wrestling. Nakajima using the move in the Budokan was no coincidence: it was a middle-finger directed at KENTA. It is also notable that Nakajima should use a move associated with New Japan rather than Kensuke Office, with a whole range of Sasaki movs at his disposal. Forget company loyalty, this is straightforward, simple antagonism. At the same time, it marks a continuous effort by Nakajima in both promos and the ring, to set himself apart from the rest of the NOAH roster, particularly home-grown talents like KENTA, and to avoid being pigeonholed as a Kensuke Office wrestler or Sasaki’s pupil.
Relentless, Nakajima begins brutal leg work, including another dragon screw through the ropes, a jumping knee-drop and a low dropkick, all with the intention of limiting KENTA’s relentless speed and kicking ability. He holds himself differently: an imposing, dominant figure at odds with the one we saw only six months earlier in Kensuke Office. At one point, he claps into the crowds’ faces, only seconds before trying to pull KENTA up onto the ring ramp and getting caught with a huge momentum shifting death valley driver. This was a move which, in their opening match, was a devastating secret weapon unleashed by KENTA, here being used out of sheer desperation. While he does gain the upper hand, the damage to his left knee remains. As with much of the best selling, KENTA feels genuinely limited by his injury and sells it in ways which are more nuanced than even expressing pain or failing to hit a move. When he goes for a powerbomb, his knees give way and strip the move of much of its explosive power. He still hits it, but it isn’t what it could be. As the match nears its closing stages, Nakajima continues to resist everything that KENTA throws at him. It is almost scary, watching him take bump after bump and get up, like the antagonist of a slasher film, to dole out yet more punishment. Alongside the agonising pain of being put in the ankle lock, his use of KENTA’s own busaiku knee throws psychological torment into the mix.
When the KENTA comeback arrives, it is expected but wholly welcomed by a baying Budokan crowd, who perhaps thought he would hit his big moves, hold the belt high and go home. He does hit his big moves, but a definitive G2S is reversed into a roll-up by Nakajima and then an ear-splitting kick to the head. KENTA kicks out somehow, and the crowd noise begins to grow. KENTA hits the three kicks to the head which he had deployed in the last match, but this time goes for the full cover, only for Nakajima to kick out. As the match reaches the twenty-five minute mark, KENTA finds himself once again on the receiving end of a Nakajima striking exchange. A last ditch effort. He baits Nakajima in, survives what offence he can, catches him on a spinning roundhouse attempt and lands a final, cathartic GTS. He pins Nakajima and the referee counts to three.
In a scene full of emotive pathos, a defeated Nakajima is led away from the ring, and turns to look back at the Budokan and at the emerald green mat. His face is a combination of determined anger and heartbreak, tears rolling down his face. The performance of a professional wrestler which he put on in their early matches, the smug and sadistic heel that we saw in the Budokan; all of it has faded away, showing us the real Katsuhiko Nakajima underneath. As a portrayal of failure, it is so believable because in spite of his having been trained by Sasaki, Nakajima will have experienced heaps of it in his life. And like all of us, he must move forward and set his sights on other pursuits. The definitive singles confrontation with his rival would have to wait.
22 June 2009. Korakuen Hall, Tokyo. NOAH Southern Navigation 2009
Pro Wrestling NOAH had been in a commercial downturn for several years running by 2009. The company had failed to build up new stars, and the dramatic return of Kenta Kobashi in a sold-out Budokan in December 2007 after his cancer recovery could only temporarily patch over the cracks that falling attendances represented. NOAH drew its lowest ever figure for the Budokan in July of 2008, and by the end of the year, Nippon TV had cancelled their regular television programme as a cost-saving measure. With the company in need of a new star, Misawa turned to Go Shiozaki, a 27-year-old dojo trainee and another protege of Kenta Kobashi.
Misawa would tag with Shiozaki as part of an ongoing storyline to raise the latter’s profile with the fans, in spite of concerns about his own health. On June 13, 2009, Misawa took a routine back-suplex during a tag match in Hiroshima and died at the age of 46. The event is one whose shadow still hangs over the promotion to this day. Having led the exodus from All Japan, Misawa was the titular ‘Noah.’ The green mat, the in-ring style, a great deal of the booking, it was all him. On June 14, GHC Champion Jun Akiyama would vacate the title, stricken with grief over the death of Misawa and citing a back injury. In spite of Misawa not being there to put him over, the planned push for Shiozaki continued undeterred, and he defeated Takeshi Rikio for the vacant GHC Championship that same night.
For NOAH, returning to the well of the Kensuke Office and NOAH feud was an appealing prospect. The sight of the GHC Heavyweight Champion and the Junior Champion defending the honour of their home promotion against the invading heels would be a feel-good ending to the Korakuen show on the 22 June in a match which would be a tribute to the recently departed Misawa. It didn’t seem to matter that various Kensuke Office tag teams had lost every match in the run up to this one. In the wake of a tragedy, it would be easy, feel-good booking where the faces win and everyone goes home happy.
Even so, the match is one of the finest tag matches in NOAH history. There are fascinating exchanges between all of the wrestlers, with excellent character work from all. Shiozaki brutalises Nakajima with chops that directly recall the punishment he received from Kobashi in their matches only a year prior. The immovable object that is Kensuke Sasaki once again comes into conflict with KENTA’s formidable striking ability, with wince-inducing results. At one point, KENTA completely ignores Nakajima tagging in and continues to deliver forearms to Sasaki, almost as if he is trying to get under Nakajima’s skin by indicating that he doesn’t consider him a threat. Interactions between Nakajima and KENTA are teased for half of the match, with KENTA watching in anger and simmering at the tag rope almost any time Nakajima is in the ring. When the two do meet, to a rapturous crowd response, we witness some of the most crisp, violent work to be seen between them yet.
The closing stages of the match feature KENTA repeatedly dishing out punishment, only for Nakajima to kick out again and again, the crowd getting louder each time. When he gets Nakajima up for the GTS, it gets reversed into an ankle lock, into the STF and then back into an ankle lock. Shiozaki comes in to make the save and gets halted by Sasaki, only for KENTA to make it to the ropes anyway. Both men land Misawa’s signature tiger suplex in sequence. Nakajima hits a german suplex on Shiozaki, only to have him be saved by KENTA at the last possible minute. The fact that Nakajima was halted in perhaps his greatest career accomplishment yet – a pinfall on the GHC Champion – by his sole nemesis, is another brilliant piece of long-term storytelling. It is also a sequence which protects Nakajima well when he takes the inevitable pinfall in the form of a Go Crusher from the GHC Heavyweight Champion.
25 October 2009. Sapporo Teisen Hall, Sapporo. NOAH Autumn Navigation 2009
The final match in the 2009 singles trilogy, this meeting took place in the early stages of NOAH’s annual round-robin Junior Heavyweight tournament. It might seem disappointing, after the stakes of their previous matches, that the final meeting would be a tournament match in a small venue in Sapporo. The reason is circumstantial: KENTA injured his knee during the Junior Tag League and was forced to vacate the title. Even so, it does make a curious kind of sense for their feud, which had been based on the idea of two very similar wrestlers, both determined to be the best, and whose paths continue to cross.
The match could have been a run-of-the-mill tournament block match, carried along their infectious chemistry alone, but neither seemed content to leave the ring without telling a compelling story and showcasing yet more violent intent. The size of the venue, where the fans feel every kick and forearm, the lighting, the closeness of the camera angles, everything comes together in a perfect storm that gives you the impression of two wrestlers who truly want to hurt each other.
The narrative of KENTA and Nakajima is so successful across so many matches because both men fluidly alternate between face and heel. Nakajima had ostensibly been the heel during the early Kensuke Office feud but his ability to absorb and resist punishment, particularly from the much larger Kenta Kobashi, made him an appealing babyface at times. His position as the younger and less experienced of the two, always perpetually chasing KENTA, made it that much more shocking to watch the punishment that he doled out at the Budokan as the defending champion. In this match, the rivalry between the two has built to such an intensity that the match effectively plays out as heel vs heel.
Right from the off, KENTA throws Nakajima into the railing and then into the crowd, kicking him repeatedly against a concrete wall and hitting him over the back with a chair. Later, he once again hits the faked-out backwards heel kick into Nakajima’s face. The pace of some of their past exchanges has been replaced with a considered, slow build that allows the match to organically rise in intensity, only further emphasising the sadism of KENTA’s offence. Nakajima, too, is out for blood, setting KENTA up in a tree of woe and kicking him in the head before wrenching him into a sleeper hold.
The closing stretches of the match are predictably excellent from a technical perspective, and the psychology really shines if you look past the frantic pace and pay attention. Of particular note is a sequence where Nakajima backflips out of a tiger suplex and gets caught in a cutter, before catching KENTA in an ankle lock. KENTA, smartly, reverses the ankle lock into an STF and, preventing Nakajima from getting to the rope by catching the arm, wrenches the STF back into a tiger suplex and lands the move. The deployment of specific moves in order to set up others feels like a very natural progression between two wrestlers who by now know each other intimately. The match is even right up to the end, where Nakajima seems to have the upper hand and is pulling KENTA into a brainbuster when the bell sounds for thirty-minutes, ending in a draw. The two men are too tired to even continue fighting, both perhaps sensing that wasting energy during a round-robin tournament would hinder their chances of winning.
The story continues…
In the first instalment of this retrospective series on KENTA and Nakajima, I explored how the feud between NOAH and Kensuke Office provided the perfect backdrop for a story about two like minded wrestlers with similar goals and ambitions. The heated and intense clashes between the two in several lengthy tag matches were an attempt to mimic the fighting spirit and violence of their heavyweight elders, a direct response to the pressure of succeeding their mentors. If their handshake in Korakuen Hall represented a new maturity and a decision to be their own men rather than idly following their elders, the matches between the two in 2009 represent them coming to blows for their own reasons. Their was not personal, but their mutual drive to be the best and to sit at the pinnacle of the Junior Heavyweight division of NOAH made it personal.
This is how, just over a year after the handshake, the two have returned to being at each other’s throats, albeit for different reasons than a year prior. Their matches in 2009 further elevated the quality of in-ring work and storytelling, introducing intriguing emotional complexities as well as face-heel dynamics that are present in only the best feuds. To this day, Nakajima’s defense in the Budokan stands as one of my favourite matches ever. It is admittedly disappointing that the feud never got the proper send-off that it deserved that year, but this is a reality of injuries.
Nakajima and KENTA would not meet again until the latter returned from a knee injury in the middle of 2010, and would not meet in singles competition until 2013. With KENTA’s formation of the heel stable No Mercy and his accession into the Heavyweight division, the company would put greater stock in Nakajima in the Junior Division. He won the GHC Junior Title again in September 2011, vacating it after nine days due to injury. Two months later, he would have his first lengthy run with the belt for 164 days. It would be his most significant title-win yet, and his career trajectory would once again mirror KENTA’s as he slowly moved into the Heavyweight division of NOAH throughout 2014.
In the next article, we witness KENTA establish himself as a top heavyweight and defend the GHC Championship against Nakajima in Yokohama. Nakajima, meanwhile, seems more committed to establishing his own legacy than ever by surpassing his greatest rival.