AJPW Excite Series
February 26 2017
We’re in Osaka, Japan. The Junior Battle of Glory is one of many Japanese tournaments. This one used to take place in the summer before a 2014 move to February to allow it to stand out. Previous winners include KAI (twice), Chris Sabin, Kotaro Suzuki (twice) and last year’s winner was Atsushi Aoki. The field is slightly bigger than usual with five guys in each block. With everyone beating each other in Block B it’s come down to Hikaru Sato, last year’s losing finalist, against youngster Yuma Aoyagi. Over in Block A it’s more complex. I’ll have to look at permutations as they arise.
Before we kick off Stan Hansen shows up. I have a sensational picture of him from the WWE Network interview with JBL. He looks like a Muppet that’s been brought to life. I do love Stan though. He’s humble as fuck and blind as a bat.
Hikaru Sato vs. Yuma Aoyagi
Winner of this advances to the Jr. Battle of Glory final. They do a fine job of selling the importance of the match with Aoyagi looking keen and Sato shutting him down wherever possible. They go four minutes at breakneck pace, albeit mostly on the mat, and Sato gets a fluke roll up pin to advance to the finals for the second year running.
Final Rating: **1/2
Minoru Tanaka vs. Masahi Takeda
Takeda has had a surprisingly strong tournament, given his deathmatch roots, whereas Tanaka has had a shocker. He’s got one point, from a draw with Iwamoto, and two losses. He cannot advance. Takeda will advance if he wins. With Aoki-Iwamoto to follow that seems unlikely. Takeda alternates between bundles of enthusiasm and targeting Tanaka’s arm. It’s a little disjointed and Takeda’s ‘focus’ is tough to follow. The storyline is clear though; Takeda is desperate to win and keen to progress into the finals. It’s this desperation that perhaps muddies his tactical approach. This leads to Takeda getting caught by counters and Tanaka wins with the 450 Splash to end both men’s tournament.
Final Rating: ***
Atsushi Aoki vs. Koji Iwamoto
Now the winner of this match will be competing in the final. If it’s Aoki it’ll be a repeat of the 2016 final. Aoki is certainly experienced enough to know it’s within his grasp and feels he just needs to wear Iwamoto down. Iwamoto has only been wrestling for four years, coming through DDT and HEAT UP. He never stood out in DDT but All Japan’s lack of depth has created a window of opportunity for him. It’s Iwamoto’s match so he has to force the pace and Aoki is then forced into action to respond. Aoki has become a wrestler who will coast if you let him. Iwamoto can sense this becoming a twenty minute grind and makes sure that doesn’t happen. As the match progresses it goes from Iwamoto trying to survive to him trying to win, which is exactly what Aoki wanted to begin with. He wanted Iwamoto come after him so he could force the error. The building of Iwamoto’s confidence is key to the storyline. After that the story changes to Iwamoto’s pluck and guts, as he absorbs abuse and keeps kicking out. Some of the desperation kick-outs, from both guys, down the stretch are downright sensational. Especially as the ring announcer starts to have kittens about the time limit but it runs out and Iwamoto goes to the finals with a draw.
Final Rating: ***1/2
Zeus, KAI, Yohei Nakajima & Yusuke Okada vs. Ryoji Sai, Yutaka Yoshie, Atsushi Maruyama & Fuminori Abe
This screams filler. Zeus is awaiting a title shot, depending on who wins tonight. KAI is rebuilding the reputation that Wrestle-1 ruined. The other team doesn’t even have a storyline beyond Abe being a plucky youngster. Which Team Zeus has with Y. Okada. Okada briefly tries to order Zeus out of the ring so he can start and Zeus stares him down. Not today, junior! Akiyama generally does quite well with his wacky multi-man tags but this is eight men just plodding through stuff for eight minutes. One minute per man. KAI seems most interested in catching the eye, working suspiciously like Miyahara. He even uses his colour scheme. Get your own bloody identity! Nakajima and Maruyama threaten to steal proceedings with this kick-heavy sequence and this ends up being fun, despite being filler. Yoshie squashes plucky young Okada for the pin.
Final Rating: **1/2
Jun Akiyama & Keisuke Ishii vs. Takao Omori & Kazuhiro Tamura
Tamura, HEAT UP ace, is a solid choice for All Japan to push. He doesn’t feel out of place here, despite his height. Ishii is trying to step up the card following his junior success and he makes a point of going after Omori here. It’s good honest pluck and Omori is old enough to have no ego and yet retain the surly veteran status. It’s an entertaining mixture of talent with the juniors going hard against each other but also attempting to challenge the veterans. Ishii stealing Akiyama’s spots to murder Tamura. Jun then follows up by hitting his own and finishes Tamura with the Exploder. Tamura got over by losing and Ishii’s mini-Akiyama behaviour was some of his best work in All Japan.
Final Rating: ***1/2
Joe Doering & Suwama vs. Jake Lee & Naoya Nomura
Miyahara’s running buddies are here to stop Doering’s big comeback run before the title. It hasn’t taken long for Suwama to drop into playing second fiddle to Doering, having seen his own injury comeback result in championship loss. Doering made his return to the ring in January after missing eighteen months thanks to brain surgery. The crowd appreciate his resilience but wrestling is also about being tough so he has to prove he belongs all over again. This is the ‘re-establishment’ tour. Lee and Nomura know their roles and seem slightly neutered without Miyahara to lead them. When teaming with Kento there’s a definite attempt to impress from Lee & Nomura. They plod through ten minutes and Doering takes it with the Revolution Bomb. Nothing offensive here but a clear cut plan to bring Doering back into the main event fold through extended undercard squashes. The match had an odd atmosphere.
Final Rating: **3/4
Junior Battle of Glory 2017
Hikaru Sato vs. Koji Iwamoto
Whoever wins they’ll become a first-time winner of this competition. Sato’s run last year seems to place him as favourite and that’s amplified by Iwamoto having wrestled for twenty minutes earlier in a gruelling contest against Atsushi Aoki. Iwamoto does a keen job of selling his issues coming in and then for Sato assaulting his leg. Sato is calm and aggressive. Much like Aoki he figures he can just wear Iwamoto down. But this Iwamoto punk won’t stay down. He gets all fired up and mounts a delightful comeback. The lariat he nails is amazing and he soon puts Sato asleep with a choke. Iwamoto winning, against all odds, is certainly an interesting booking decision. All Japan is basically trying to rebuild from the ground up. Hence an undercard starlet like Kento becoming their ace and leading the company forward. The chances of Iwamoto becoming the junior version of Kento? Pretty strong, in my opinion. Especially on this showing.
Final Rating: ***1/2
Triple Crown Championship
Kento Miyahara (c) vs. Bodyguard
Bodyguard’s partner Zeus has been getting all the title shots so All Japan figured he was due a shot. This is also a huge vote of confidence in Miyahara’s ability to be a main event star because Bodyguard is not a big name and not what you’d call a big talent either. The one thing Bodyguard does have is power but Kento makes a point of neutering that with his speed and putting a beating on the challenger before he can lay down a marker. Bodyguard is surprisingly over with the Osaka crowd, who virtually treat champion Kento as a bad guy. This is part of the problem when it comes to booking a young champion. Certain fans will become resentful of an upstart taking the big belt. The match is far from perfect but not without charm. For every stumble Bodyguard manages a spot that causes ripples of excitement throughout the 800+ fans in attendance. He shows more fight and willingness to succeed at the top level in this match than in the entire rest of his career. Credit Miyahara for that. Willing to take everything Bodyguard has and get beaten up extensively. Kento going rubber-legged on every big Bodyguard strike is sensational selling, showing Bodyguard’s power. The match gets really heated with near falls down the stretch. It’s above any expectation I had for a Bodyguard title shot. His series of high kicks and massive lariat has the crowd gasping in disbelief at the champion’s continued survival. It has me gasping at the engine on this big man, who I’d written off as being incapable of performing at this level.
Miyahara hits a barrage of big moves at the finale, one after another, to ensure that a) Bodyguard stays down and b) Bodyguard looks great in losing. This might be the most shockingly good match of the year. If you’d have told me in 2016 that Bodyguard would be main eventing and the match would be great I’d have told you to get fucked.
Final Rating: ****1/2
The main event massively overdelivered and the rebuilding process continues for All Japan. They’re trying to bring up stars from the ranks and guys like Iwamoto, Tamura, Keisuke Ishii, Jake Lee and Naoya Nomura are benefitting. What little top end talent they have left from before Kento Miyahara took over as AJPW Ace is being utilised effectively and All Japan rarely put on a bad show. This was another positive outing for them. Especially the main event, which shocked me.