Nobuhiko Takada vs Shinya Hashimoto: Now for something completely different

April 29, 1996/Heisei 8

One of my favorite wrestling matches of all time

During this time of at-home isolation and bountiful free time due to the hospitality & food service industry in my country exploding I actually have time to watch some wrestling in 2020, and for April 1st I decided to review one of my favorite men’s matches from a Japanese promotion.

Around late fall 2014 I was just one of many western, english-speaking wrestling fans that were introduced to the NJPW product and its major annual dome show, Wrestle Kingdom 9, via promotion from Global Force Wrestling. This sudden increase in interest in NJPW meant a lot of fans got to gush about their favorite promotion to more people and felt the need to inform these new people about a company that didn’t resemble what many of us knew of from WCW Nitros of the 1990s, but this also led to one of the biggest annoyances to long-time puro fans and even newer fans that know not to rely on words written by people that are payed by Sports Illustrated: what the hell is ‘strong style’ and why does no one know what it is? At the time a lot of places were talking about how ‘strong style’ was this super cool and unique wrestling style created by Antonio Inoki in NJPW that was about shoot fighting backgrounds, stiff kicks and open-hand strikes, fighting spirit, a lot of words that boil down to a sense of machismo, and above all ‘strong style’ was this thing that didn’t exist in WWE or anything else casuals could have seen outside of Japan. So after a writing a crash-course style article people would usually leave a link to Tomohiro Ishii vs Katsuyori Shibata from the fourth day of the 2013 G1 Climax as an exclamation point to “here’s some strong style!” and that’s where I think the whole mess of that term and the never ending horrible explanations start. It’s generally a bad idea to point people towards an anomaly of a match as an example of a promotion’s defining style; one of the big reasons Katsuyori Shibata was so popular with many members of the audience was that he was a callback to a bygone era in NJPW’s history and Tomohiro Ishii has been around long enough to have actually wrestled in that bygone era. If I ever have to explain what ‘strong style’ is I just liken it to NJPW’s other tagline, “King of Sports”, these guys coming out of the NJPW dojo are the toughest around and whenever you step into a ring with the lion mark to fight these guys they’re going to show why their training and style is the best in the business. For much of the 1980s and 1990s NJPW wrestlers held up that mark, compared to the just as fun AJPW roster, NJPW wrestlers had an edge to them that made them seem like real tough guys.

For whatever the hell ‘strong style’ is I feel that this match is a better example to help people understand than anything that’s been suggested in the years since the build up to Wrestle Kingdom 9. Nobuhiko Takada is an outsider from UWF holding the IWGP heavyweight championship and Shinya Hashimoto is here to win back his crown and again prove to the fans that this ring is home to the king of sports. Emotions are a more important component to pro wrestling than the actual wrestling and something that tends to be neglected in wrestling criticism in our modern age that craves quantifiables and opinions that are easily digestible and tweetable. Numbers and stats can do everything to tell you why an athlete is one of the best or why a wrestler deserves to be booked on top because they bring the biggest live gates and sell the most merch, but the emotional investment is why the audience cares and continues to support that wrestler through their journey. During the introductions it’s never a question about which wrestler the audience is pulling for, any time Shinya is able to get a rope break the crowds gives full applause and when Shinya starts throwing heavy chops they start cheering as if they can will their man to win. The energy of the audience mirrors that of when a local boxer has a big match in their home town or when the local sports team hosts an elimination game, anything your guy or your team does feels 10x more important than anything else that could be happening in that moment because what’s before your eyes is all that matters. When Shinya ducks under Takada’s head kick and sweeps his legs out from under him the crowd jumps to their feet and erupts into a roar loud enough to make you think the match had just ended in a TKO. Seeing Takada clutch his knee after hitting the mat is that bit of hope that you needed to know that Shinya is going to win this match, the brainbuster sends the crowd into a fervor that reaches its final pitch once Takada taps out from the armbar.

Why is this match my go-to example for “strong style”? Because this match makes me feel like this is two wrestlers going out to the ring and giving it their all to win the fight, and it’s a hell of a fight. This match is under 15 minutes but it’s not just a mess of nonstop action or dramatic stares for the sake of dramatics, everything done in this match feels purposeful and nothing is done for the sake of doing something. Some moments are just the two wrestlers holding a lock up or mount, trying to think of a way to best their opponent, and that lets the audience sit and hope that their man can find a way to get the upper hand potentially win. Many things that make the 1990s era of Japanese wrestling great and memorable is lost whenever fans try to emulate it in their own matches and the major flaw is that you can’t just copy the emotional connection these wrestlers have with the fans. You can read however many recaps and ratings as you want but that won’t tell you what truly made the match amazing, the need to have a number or little snowflakes has stunted many fans’ ability to articulate why they enjoyed a wrestling match; behaving as if they’re the algorithm in a wrestling video game that only operates on sequences and formulas. A more appropriate explanation to the old, “puro is more sport-like” is it’s sport-like because even if a wrestler or team isn’t the statistical best if they leave everything on the table, kick as hard as they can or at least go down swinging, then I’m damn well going to root for them no matter what. Strong style to me is being a fan of the group of wrestlers from NJPW, and believing that those wrestlers are very well the best in the world no matter who challenges them; be it UWF, WCW, FMW, or whoever else.

Of course I can’t be callous and say that there is no emotion in current NJPW as there obviously is, the Bushiroad era is the best business the promotion has done in recent memory and they keep growing the fan base, but again, numbers aren’t a definitive look at what makes people care and at the end of all of this, this has nothing to do with ‘strong style’ because by the time the pro wrestling anglosphere needed to have that explained to them it was already too late; by the time most of us heard the term ‘strong style’ the NJPW house style had already changed and Tomohiro Ishii fighting Katsuyori Shibata in the G1 Climax in 2013 wasn’t a rule but a mere exception.

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