Welcome to a new series in which I review some of the more unusual, esoteric and obscure shows in the history of Japanese professional wrestling, putting them into their historical context and watching them because nobody else will. For this first edition, we find out what happens when you combine sports-entertainment with all of the pomp and circumstance of combat sports at their peak in Japan. It’s the Wrestle-1 Grand Prix 2005! No, not that Wrestle-1 (the indie which closed at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020). This earlier incarnation was a short-lived inter-promotional collaboration between Keiji Mutoh’s AJPW, kickboxing company K-1 and PRIDE owner Dream Stage Entertainment, which ran five shows between 2002 and 2005. The Grand Prix was a single elimination tournament featuring huge names in puro which notably never finished because of poor attendance and TV ratings. Drawing established names and rookies from nearly all of the marquee promotions in Japan, paying through the teeth for expensive freelancers like Minoru Suzuki and importing all manner of stars from the US, Mutoh et al compiled two of the most baffling cards I have ever seen on a wrestling show.
August 4 2005, Sumo Hall (8,000 Attendance)*
- Mil Mascaras & Terry Funk vs. Tomoaki Honma & Katsuhiko Nakajima
- Kaz Hayashi vs. AJ Styles
- Kohei Suwama vs. The Predator (Tournament Match)
- Genichiro Tenryu vs. Kazunari Murakami (Tournament Match)
- Bob Sapp vs. Giant Bernard (Tournament Match)
- Kensuke Sasaki vs. Riki Choshu (Tournament Match)
- Jun Akiyama vs. Katsuyori Shibata (Tournament Match)
- The Great Muta vs. Akebono (Tournament Match)
October 2 2005, Yoyogi National Stadium (8,012 Attendance)*
- Abdullah the Butcher & Giant Kimala vs. Dory Funk, Jr. & Katsuhiko Nakajima
- Giant Bernard & The Predator vs. Sam Greco & Jan Nortje
- Team 3-D vs. Johnny Stamboli & Chuck Palumbo
- Minoru Suzuki vs. Kohei Suwama (Tournament Match)
- Jamal vs. Don Frye (Tournament Match)
- Mitsuharu Misawa & Yoshinari Ogawa vs. Akebono & Scorpio
- The Great Muta vs. Kensuke Sasaki (Tournament Match)
- Bob Sapp vs. Jun Akiyama (Tournament Match)
*I have not been able to ascertain what the actual gates for these shows were but judging by watching the shows themselves, there were not 8000 people in attendance.
I saw who was wrestling in these shows and simply knew that I had to write about them. So join me, as we ask vital questions such as: why is Tomoaki Honma taking unprotected table-shots to the head in an opening tag match? Who made Katsuyori Shibata so angry? And what mortal sin did Katsuhiko Nakajima commit to deserve this?
The early 2000s were a difficult time for professional wrestling in Japan. Mixed martial arts (MMA) and combat sports were on the ascendancy, embodied in PRIDE FC, Pancrase and the kickboxing promotion K-1 and were eating significantly into profits, attendances and TV viewership at a time of significant economic decline. Featuring a mix of attention-grabbing super-heavyweights like Bob Sapp and Butterbean and tried-and-tested fighters like Kazushi Sakuraba and Fedor Emilianenko, PRIDE and K-1 shows would draw upwards of 50,000 to the Tokyo and Osaka Domes during the first half of the decade. Amidst all of this was great upheaval in the mainstay puro companies. Mitsuharu Misawa led an exodus of talent from All Japan in late 2000 to form NOAH and would continue Giant Baba’s vision of pro wrestling into the next decade. Shinya Hashimoto, one of the biggest stars of the 1990s and one of New Japan’s ‘Three Musketeers,’ departed New Japan in 2001 and formed his own promotion, Zero-1. Another of the three musketeers, Keiji Mutoh, would abandon New Japan for All Japan in 2002, taking with him Kendo Kashin and rising talent Satoshi Kojima and promoting what the media termed ‘package pro wrestling,’ a kind of all-in-one variety show. This era of All Japan came to be known as ‘Puroresu Love.’ Inter-promotional booking became something of the norm, with Tokyo Dome shows featuring titles from multiple companies defended on the same card.
A number of strategies were also taken to try and draw in MMA fans. Inokiism, the notorious MMA-style professional wrestling promoted by Antonio Inoki, pushed wrestlers to compete in real fights with mixed martial artists and vice versa. The commitment to kayfabe was such that Sapp was forced to relinquish the IWGP title in May of 2003 after losing a real fight to Kazuyuki Fujita in K-1. Then there was Ultimate Crush, in which New Japan tried to sandwich real fights and professional wrestling matches onto the same card. The first of these shows, in May 2003 in the Tokyo Dom, featured five fights contested under vale tudo rules between MMA fighters and wrestlers like Shinsuke Nakamura and Manabu Nakanishi. Bookending the show were traditional wrestling matches, including GHC (Kobashi vs Chono) and IWGP/NWF (Takayama vs Nagata) matches.
At the same time, Kazuyoshi Ishii, the owner of K-1, was keen to get into professional wrestling. Together with PRIDE owner Dream Stage Entertainment (DSE), with whom K-1 had a talent sharing agreement, they embarked on an inter-promotional venture with Keiji Mutoh’s All Japan and talent loaned by the lucha/puro hybrid promotion Toryumon. On paper, it is easy to see how Mutoh’s All Japan and PRIDE/K-1 would be a good fit. For one, PRIDE and K-1 were able to bring production values that rivalled those of NOAH and New Japan. By 2002, Ishii was involved in the behind-the-scenes at All Japan and it was rumoured that he was pushing AJPW to up their production values. Neither PRIDE or K-1 was above indulging in the wacky or inane for the sake of drawing fans, with both promotions known for ‘freak show fights’ between competitors of vastly different weight classes. And Wrestle-1 as it did materialise carried with it huge name value, paid for presumably by PRIDE and K-1’s seemingly endless riches: alongside AJPW staples and notable K-1 and PRIDE fighters, W-1 shows featured big names from other promotions like Shinya Hashimoto, Kensuke Sasaki, Jun Akiyama, Mitsuharu Misawa and former stars like Bill Goldberg.
Unfortunately, this manifested in a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks approach to booking with little in the way of a clear identity beyond being a vehicle for Bob Sapp. And Sapp’s mercurial fame in Japan was on the downturn. The two shows they ran in the Yokohama Arena (2002) and the Tokyo Dome (2003) failed to draw sufficient attendances or good TV numbers for partner Fuji TV. In February 2003, Kazuyoshi Ishii and other K-1 executives were arrested for tax evasion and embezzlement, and Fuji TV announced they were cancelling their broadcast agreement. The Wrestle-1 venture seemed dead in the water. K-1 would later revive the venture, however, after the collapse of their partnership with DSE and PRIDE. This is how we arrive at the heady days of 2005 and the Wrestle-1 Grand Prix 2005.
Wrestle-1 Grand Prix 2005
I will begin by stating that, due to streaming problems on Archive.org, I spent some 20+ hours downloading the files for this show. Painful, slow hours which were rewarded with some of the worst professional wrestling that I have ever seen. And, in spite of this, I was entertained. The Wrestle-1 Grand Prix has spectacle that feels unique to Japanese MMA in this period and, as noted in Wrestling Observer Newsletter, would be borrowed and adapted by US wrestling promotions like WWE. Like watching Wrestlemania live, there is something about these shows that makes them feel undeniable, no matter how bad the matches, no matter how little of it even feels like wrestling.
For starters, the longest match on these cards is 17:00. For what is essentially a cross-promotional supercard, that is a staggeringly short amount of time. This leads to a strange viewing experience because the production values fail to be matched by any kind of spectacle in the ring: there is little of the heavy striking or dramatic submission work that you would expect from an MMA show, or the extended storytelling you would expect of a traditional puro show. Even the moments which do feel provide some excitement feel like they have been obviously choreographed, such as an extended post-match sequence after the Dudley Boyz match to allow someone to be put through a table. The lack of effort put in by a lot of the big names makes it feel like watching a Wrestle Kingdom show where everyone arrives in the ring and then immediately decides to wrestle like it’s a Road to Power Struggle show in Korakuen Hall. This is matched in turn by the fans, who not seem few in attendance but have little enthusiasm for anything in the ring.
The first night opens with one of the best matches of either card, with Mil Mascaras and Terry Funk, who both enjoyed success in Japan during the 1980s and 1990s, facing off against Tomoaki Honma and the rookie Katsuhiko Nakajima, both of whom working for Kensuke Office at the time. There is a particularly nasty sequence early on with Honma taking two shots to the head from a table and then a sit-out piledriver onto a semi-collapsed table on the outside. The rest of the match is well-paced, with an excellent babyface tag by an actually-babyfaced 17-year-old Nakajima. After this, Kaz Hayashi from AJPW’s junior division puts on a decent showing against Mr. TNA himself, AJ Styles, in a special singles-match.
We soon catch our first glimpse of K-1 talent The Predator, with a Bruiser Brody gimmick and a name so generic that somebody else on these cards (former PRIDE fighter Don Frye) is also called The Predator. He also looks and wrestles like a default CAW from an Xbox 360 copy of Smackdown vs Raw 2k14 except come to life, and for some reason booked in a match against All Japan rookie Kohei Suwama. NJPW and PRIDE fighter Kazunari Murakami batters 1980s New Japan legend Genichiro Tenryu for a good while with the expectation of a firey comeback for the veteran. When Tenryu does get the upper-hand, it comes not from hitting a big move or a reversal but because the match dictates it. Then Murakami tries to use a glass bottle from his corner as a weapon and gets himself DQ’d.
Sandwiched between all of this is a memorial to the late Shinya Hashimoto, perhaps the most successful wrestler in puro during the early 1990s in New Japan, known for his hard-hitting and believable style. Hashimoto had died only a month earlier of heart problems at the age of 40. A portrait of Hashimoto with AJPW’s Triple Crown titles being held aloft in the middle of the ring is a poignant and sobering image, a tangible reminder that the strains of professional wrestling in this era were not without their consequences. When Mitsuharu Misawa shows up in a tag on the second show, it is hard not to recognise that this is only four years before he will die in the ring after a run-of-the-mill suplex.
What these shows are most notable for is a match from the first night between Shibata and Akiyama which has spread solely via word-of-mouth due to a combination of name value and its sheer violence. By this time, Akiyama had been firmly established as one of the dominant faces in NOAH, while Shibata had abandoned his role as one of New Japan’s ‘New’ three musketeers (along with Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi) to form the upstart promotion Big Mouth Loud. Right from the get-go, Shibata opens with a flying knee followed by a shoot-kick to the face which legit busts Akiyama open. He gives off the kind of brutal and controlled violence that he is so well-loved for and the crowd responds with one of the loudest pops generated by either show. Then Akiyama throws Shibata over the railing and throws chairs at him. The two vie for control on the outside and back in the ring and eventually begin hitting huge power moves on each other. While this match does somewhat fail to meet the expectations set by its ferocious start with unnecessary submission sequences, its very short run-time makes it an easy watch and I can highly recommend it. Plus, unlike the rest of the show, it can be viewed on YouTube below.
The second night of the Wrestle-1 tournament is both worse and more entertaining than the first night. We begin with an opening tag featuring the team of Katsuhiko Nakajima and Dory Funk, Jr. against Abdullah the Butcher and Giant Kimala. That Kensuke Sasaki allowed his de facto adopted son and protege (Nakajima) to be put into this match is baffling and somehow still only the second worst thing he has done to a wrestling trainee. Nakajima is clearly the only one who cares about the match at all and there is one sequence where Dory Funk, Jr. hits two forearms in the ring and downs Giant Kimala only to decide he can’t be bothered anymore and walking across the ring to tag out.
Elsewhere on night 2 undercard, The Predator tries to scare the audience like he’s working a haunted-house funfair ride; the Dudley Boyz predictably put someone through a table and Suzuki and Suwama surprisingly put on a decent match in the short time they are given, with the rookie landing a surprising amount of offence against the former Pancrase fighter turned freelance wrestler. The match ends with a series of huge suplexes leading to a successful sleeper attempt by Suzuki which feels like a natural evolution in the match and a turning of the side rather than match pacing by numbers. While the Misawa match is uneventful, it is fun to see his entrance given the full K-1 treatment. Everything from the lights to the pyro to the way he holds himself when he walks out is almost perfect and demonstrates how special the combination of MMA production values with professional wrestling could have been if done right.
The stark realisation is that once you get over the sheer drama of the presentation, there is nothing especially notable about the wrestling. This is simple, decent and at times even mildly entertaining work but nothing from either night is compelling for any other reason than as an insight into the weirdness of 2000s puro. The Mutoh vs Sasaki match is notable primarily for a sequence in which the ref throws a chair out of the ring, not realising Sasaki is trying to pick it up. Mutoh has to stand around and vibe for a good ten seconds before Sasaki gets back in with the chair and they can proceed with the planned spots. Akiyama and Sapp put on a decent brawl to close out night two with a nice table spot and a sequence of wrestling moves and worked shoot spots. Sapp wins with a powerbomb in a move designed to re-establish him after defeats in MMA and being stripped of the IWGP Championship a year earlier.
Writing about an unfinished tournament naturally begs the question about what the result would have been if it had finished. With Jamal (Umaga) vs Suzuki and Mutoh vs Sapp in the next round, it seems inevitable that the final would have been contested between Sapp and Suzuki. This is at least true if you read the finish of the previous night, as part of an exercise in trying to get Bob Sapp over as a genuine threat and the star of the reborn Wrestle-1. Ultimately, these shows underperformed to such an extent that there were no more shows. Wrestle-1 would fade into obscurity until 2013 when Mutoh, who had inherited the copyright for Wrestle-1, revived the brand after his departure from All Japan. This promotion would again adopt the same kind of sports entertainment style that Mutoh has promoted in his later career, albeit to much smaller crowds and in much smaller venues than at these shows. In the meantime, Dream Stage Entertainment (DSE) would collaborate with former UWFI star Nobuhiko Takada in Fighting Opera HUSTLE, a unique take on sports entertainment which featured a host of famous names such as Tenryu, Riki Choshu, Yoshihiro Takayama, Naoya Ogawa and Mutoh himself. But maybe we’ll cover that another time.
What this Wrestle-1 show really spells out to me is how much of a missed opportunity the Wrestle-1 shows were. There was good wrestling on these cards and there was genuine scope for a kind of slimmed down, more accessible professional wrestling product replete with huge production values and shorter match times. Given that even NOAH, which had been the most successful company in these years, began to experience a decline in the latter half of the decade, it might be that there was just no way of making wrestling amenable to mainstream audience tastes at this time.
- Chris Charlton, Eggshells
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter, 7 Oct 2002