Recap from Ryan Clingman:
On March 28th 2002 Toshiaki Kawada the then AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight champion was forced to vacate the title due to a knee injury suffered earlier in the year. All Japan management decided that a new champion would be crowned in the upcoming AJPW Grand Championship Carnival Tournament in April.
The two men that met in the finals were no strangers to one another when it came to wrestling big matches. In fact, their June 8th match from the previous year was one of the best matches of 2001 and even won match of the year in the 2001 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards. The show also drew 16,000 fans to Budokan Hall one of only six matches to draw over 5,000 fans at the Budokan that year.
Things were looking even better for All Japan Pro Wrestling in 2002. They had recovered to a large extent from the exodus of talent following the formation of NOAH in 2000 and had an ever growing talent pool of fresh faces and strong maineventers. They were doing better business as a whole, and were putting on great matches show after show.
Two of the big reasons for the outstanding quality of their June 8th match in 2001 were the crowd reactions, and crispness of the work. Tenryu, who was 51 at the time, well past his prime moved like he was in his thirties, the same could be said for Mutoh who was 39 at the time and had won ‘Most Improved Wrestler’ in 2001 – an astonishing feat. Despite the fact that both men put on a classic that night the same could not be said for their 2002 match.
A lot of what made the 2001 match great wasn’t there for this match. Mutoh was no longer an outsider from New Japan looking to oust the All Japan veteran in Tenryu – the match simply wasn’t as big. There were also technical aspects missing, because while they did some of the same spots playing off of their match from the previous year; many of them didn’t pay off as well as in 2001.
Both men still went on to have great matches later on in the year. Tenryu had a classic with Satoshi Kojima in July defending the Triple Crown that he won in this match. Mutoh also had a very good year, winning the Triple Crown in October, and reinventing himself again as the Great Muta.
The story of this match was pretty straight forward, but resulted in quite a few unique spots. Basically Mutoh worked on the arms and legs of Tenryu, and went for the moonsault over and over again. However, he wasn’t able to catch Tenryu with it right until the end of the match where Tenryu kicked out regardless.
My favourite spot in the match came when Mutoh attempted multiple times to catch Tenryu with his shining wizard, but Tenryu blocked them with his forearms resulting in injuries to the arm, and ultimately his failure to defend against the move, which was a really clever touch that played into the match later on.
As a whole this was a really good match, and probably if I had to rate it amongst its peers whilst looking back at how good the time period was, I would give it a *** ¾ rating or maybe ****. It wasn’t the best match that both men had together by any stretch of the imagination, which actually makes you wonder why exactly All Japan chose to upload this match instead of either their 2001 match or the match from later in the year.
However, if you are interested in watching a very fun match with a lot of unique spots and good storytelling, this match is worth your time. However, don’t go in expecting their 2001 classic, because this wasn’t and couldn’t have been that match. What it was however was a unique match coming off of Kawada’s injury and it was good for what it was.