Val’s Japanese wrestler & match of the year candidates : Halfway report

Welcome to my first take at making a whole article discussing my matches of the year candidates within Japanese pro wrestling !
2020 has been a rather weird year so far, where most promotions across Japan had to temporarily stop their activities, only to return holding empty arena events. Gladly, these circumstances didn’t stop a good amount of Japanese wrestlers from performing at a high level, and this is what I will be highlighting today !

Before getting into this article, let me break down how I will be discussing the different matches featured in this piece. I will take one wrestler or a team (which I consider in the running for wrestler of the year), discuss their first half of the year and highlight the reasons why said half of 2020 has earned them a spot in this piece through some of their matches, without going too much in detail. The idea being to give you a taste of what to expect without telling you everything about these matches. Then, I’ll end up with a list of said matches for you to watch or revisit, in chronological order. I do need to specify that there likely will be some matches which you think should be featured. Similarily with wrestlers, but I will try to cover as much ground as I currently am able to !
With that said… Ready ? Let’s do this !

AXIZ : At the center of NOAH, and beyond.

Arguably the most successful tag team in wrestling at the moment, AXIZ has been very dominant during the first part of the year. Entering the year as GHC Tag Team champions, which didn’t last long, the duo quickly won singles gold again, with Shiozaki becoming GHC Heavyweight champion for the 3rd time, while Nakajima went to the now defunct WRESTLE-1 and took the top title from Daiki Inaba, holding it until the end of April. He then went on to defeat Takashi Sugiura to become the second ever GHC National champion.
Regarding their matches, Shiozaki since defeating Kiyomiya has been putting a big emphasis on telling stories in his matches, his reign revolving around symbolism. His matches against Kiyomiya and especially Fujita both cemented Shiozaki as NOAH’s flagbearer, the current figure, carrying the will and spirit of one of his mentors and founder of NOAH, Mitsuharu Misawa.
For Nakajima, the W-1 run, while short, had huge potential which it managed to live up to based on the little we saw. The Genius Of The Kick channelling his inner heel, perfectly playing the dominant, disrespectful and cocky invader, highlighted by his victories over Inaba and Ashino. Then back in NOAH, the match with Takashi Sugiura closed a chapter when it comes to Nakajima’s evolution since growing into his current persona, and the match with Soya put more emphasis on what kind of champion he would be : A fighting one with ideas, filled with a will to make the championship he holds stand out.

  • Go Shiozaki vs Kaito Kiyomiya ~ 04.01.2020
  • Katsuhiko Nakajima vs Shotaro Ashino ~ 12.02.2020
  • Katsuhiko Nakajima vs Hideki Suzuki ~ 16.02.2020
  • Go Shiozaki vs Kazuyuki Fujita ~ 29.03.2020
  • Katsuhiko Nakajima vs Takashi Sugiura ~ 09.05.2020
  • Katsuhiko Nakajima vs Manabu Soya ~ 21.06.2020

Masato Tanaka : A Yankee aging like fine wine.

The man which is mainly known for the battles against Mike Awesome in ECW has been outstanding these first few months. His arc in DDT kicking off during the D-odô Grand Prix late last year, which earned him a shot at HARASHIMA’s KO-D Openweight title the following January, where he won. From this match until the rematch against Tetsuya Endo in June, Tanaka managed to provide very different performances against the likes of Takeshita, Sakaguchi and Endo. The second match stands out from the others due to being shorter and going away from the formula of his other title matches, but it also examplifies why Tanaka stands out as one of the best wrestlers of the year so far. Merging his style with the variety of opponents he faced to provide hard-hitting, competitive and compelling bouts is a testiment to his greatness.
I also have to bring up the tag team match celebrating ZERO1’s 19th anniversary, where he and his Dangan Yankees partner Takashi Sugiura faced Daisuke Sekimoto & Yuji Okabayashi, aka Strong BJ, to give out one of the most hard hitting bouts of the year.

  • vs HARASHIMA ~ 26.01.2020
  • with Takashi Sugiura vs Strong BJ (Daisuke Sekimoto & Yuji Okabayashi) ~ 01.03.2020
  • vs Konosuke Takeshita ~ 20.03.2020
  • vs Yukio Sakaguchi ~ 09.05.2020
  • vs Tetsuya Endo ~ 07.06.2020

Yuji Okabayashi : The Golem goes strong, wherever he goes.

Moving on to another very strong (this pun might be intended) contender in the Wrestler of the Year race in Yuji Okabayashi. Very few wrestlers can claim to have the same consistency Okabayashi has shown throughout 2020 alone, and not just in big matches (Almost any undercard tag match Okabayashi wrestled in when in BJW will show you that). Now, these same big matches are where he truly shined. From the very early hoss fight against Yuji Hino in ZERO1 where the latter got his eye messed up, to THAT tag team match mentioned earlier, to his four months run in 2AW, where his four title matches greatly helped elevating the Openweight championship and the wrestlers he faced for it. The likes of Shu Asakawa, Tank Nagai and Ayato Yoshida benefitted fom sharing the ring with him, all managing to look really good against one of the top wrestlers in the world. His run brought some spotlight to 2AW itself as well, so in all aspects, you can consider this run a successful one.
A good amount of wrestlers played the « invading » role this year, some even became champion in unwelcoming territory, and arguably, Okabayashi was the best one in that role, thanks to the overwhelming feeling of dominance he brought with him to 2AW.

  • vs Yuji Hino ~ 01.01.2020
  • with Daisuke Sekimoto vs Dangan Yankees (Takashi Sugiura & Masato Tanaka) ~ 01.03.2020
  • vs Shu Asakawa ~ 25.03.2020
  • vs Taishi Takizawa ~ 28.04.2020
  • vs Tank Nagai ~ 23.05.2020
  • vs Ayato Yoshida ~ 05.07.2020

Arisa Nakajima : The Queen of the sea, and Joshi MVP ?

Last, but definitely not least, let’s look at yet another Nakajima who has been pretty great in 2020, in SEAdLINNNG’s Arisa Nakajima. The wrestler I’d consider to be the main figure in her promotion kicked off her first Beyond The Sea title reign last year, capping it off against Nanae Takahashi until now. Since then, her defences against the likes of Yoshiko, Rina Yamashita and ASUKA all shown how talented she is. The two matches against Yoshiko showcased her ability to bring both the fire and heelish tendencies in a more personal feud, helping making the matches more compelling (against an opponent who is also great at that). The Yamashita match featured a nice opposition between technical skills and pure strength, while the ASUKA match was more reflective of her experience against a far younger opponent with loads of potential, which Arisa helped making look great.
Her fighting spirit in all these bouts, the moments of cockiness (especially against Yoshiko) showed depth and surely made the matches easier to get invested in, which when added to great technical skills and selling, can only give out top notch matches. Arguably the Joshi scene’s MVP so far.

  • vs Yoshiko ~ 24.01.2020
  • vs Rina Yamashita ~ 10.03.2020
  • vs ASUKA ~ 13.06.2020
  • vs Yoshiko ~ 13.07.2020

These other matches I can’t forget

Before putting an end to this recap kind of piece, here is another list of matches which I felt I had to include in this article, but couldn’t fit in the same way as the matches listed prior, as the intent was to prioritize wrestlers who accumulated great matches throughout the first half of the year (and a bit beyond).

  • Kento Miyahara vs Jake Lee ~ AJPW ~ 03.01.2020
  • Kazuchika Okada vs Tetsuya Naito ~ NJPW ~ 05.01.2020
  • Naoya Nomura vs Ayato Yoshida ~ AJPW ~ 19.01.2020
  • Mayu Iwatani vs Takumi Iroha ~ Stardom ~ 08.02.2020
  • Toru Sugiura vs Yuko Miyamoto ~ FREEDOMS ~ 10.02.2020
  • Kagetsu vs Meiko Satomura ~ Kagetsu retirement show ~ 24.02.2020
  • Yuji Hino vs Kohei Sato ~ ZERO1 ~ 01.03.2020
  • Naruki Doi vs Susumu Yokosuka ~ Dragon Gate ~ 01.03.2020
  • Kento Miyahara vs Suwama ~ AJPW ~ 23.03.2020
  • Susumu Yokosuka vs Hikaru Sato ~ AJPW ~ 16.05.2020

If you wish to look even deeper into my picks and other recommendations, I have been holding a spreadsheet of recommended matches from (nearly) all over Japan, which you can find here !

On that note, this is where this halfway report of some sort comes to an end ! Let me know what you think of the format itself, and which matches you’d have as part as of your contenders list !

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