NJPW Tadakai no Wonderland ~Showa Hen~ #284
Antonio Inoki was sort of an amazing enigma in that he could deliver 500 consecutive somnambulist specials then set free a match so drenched in desire it was literally one of the most memorable of the year on effort alone. Though Tatsumi Fujinami is far and away the better wrestler, the match is really all about Inoki firing up and delivering the goods for one of the finals times of his lengthy career, proving that even at the age of 45, on his chosen night he could still hang with if not outshine one of the best wrestlers in the world.
They wrestled in a perception-altering manner. Though they didn’t actually run that much, they scampered as fast as they possibly could when they did, and that general tone of busting their asses for 60 minutes had a way of tinting everyone’s perception. In actuality, it was a never ending bout with lengthy submissions, but they grimaced and contorted to put the urgency and desperation over to the point the match not only didn’t feel slow, it actually seemed an active dash.
The audience went hog wild for everything. They were standing up waving their fists as though it were a rock concert. Simply judging on atmosphere, there aren’t a lot of better matches. It wasn’t perfect by any means, or necessarily even that thrilling from a moves standpoint, but it was an energizing match. In spite of it’s flaws, this is one you don’t want to let go of, one you actually feel you wouldn’t mind going on for another 30 or even 60 minutes, even if you have no idea how they could pull it off since the first 60 were actually considerably more than they needed or knew how to fill.
The backbone seemed to be Fujinami working Inoki’s knee to set up a series of leg submissions, but when this story ran it’s course, the match really unraveled. It was about the oddest thing I’ve ever seen. I mean, they battled to the point Fujinami almost won by debilitating Inoki’s knee, then sort of chalked it up as a draw and started over again with an amateur wrestling scramble for positioning that belonged in the first 5 minutes of the match rather than the final 15. After 5 minutes of opening/feeling out moves, you began to wonder if they edited the opening down to a highlight here and there so it wouldn’t come off as Groundhog Day.
LM: The problem I had with the Inoki-Fujinami match wasn't what either guy was doing or how they were interacting with each other, just the order in which they were doing it. Something that has always annoyed me about almost every New Japan heavyweight match I've seen is they seem to randomly switch from ground work to standing strikes to "strong style" and back again without any real rhyme or reason to why they're doing it. If you were to take all of the sequences of Fujinami-Inoki, splice them up then stitch them back together so they had a slow build with the ’70’s ground stuff eventually progressing to a crescendo of the worked shoot stuff, it would've been one of the greatest matches of all time. Instead, I was left thinking "....huh?".
ML: Since they didn’t know where to go for the final quarter, it was more a memorable match than a great one. However, it’s the sort of match no witness will forget because it wasn’t simply the best 60 minute match you could possibly hope for from Inoki vs. Fujinami in 1988, it was as though we somehow witnessed an all out encounter of both of them in their prime. 35:59 of 60:00. ****
Special thanks to: Luke Merritt