SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath-the-surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
Keiji Mutoh seeking to make history in Pro Wrestling NOAH
Keiji Mutoh returns to a familiar setting this Friday.
One of wrestling’s timeless treasures over the past four decades, the famed Mutoh will be back in the center of the ring, wrestling for the world title.
“I know I am older now,” Mutoh says, speaking through a translator. “My knees and sore body bother me in daily life. However, when I am in the squared circle, I am back in my element. I feel alive.”
Mutoh is one of the most decorated champions in professional wrestling history. As the famed Great Muta, he first won New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s prestigious IWGP heavyweight championship in 1992. Nine years later, Mutoh became All Japan Pro Wrestling’s triple crown heavyweight champion. Now, at the age of 58, he pursues Pro Wrestling NOAH’s esteemed GHC heavyweight championship, seeking to become only the third person in wrestling history to capture all three titles.
Mutoh challenges reigning GHC heavyweight champ Go Shiozaki on Friday, headlining NOAH’s Destination 2021: Back to Budokan show.
The chance to square off against Mutoh is an incredible opportunity for Shiozaki, who is coming off a career year. Shiozaki won the title when he defeated Kaito Kiyomiya at Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall on January 4, 2020. This is his fourth reign with NOAH’s top belt, which has been around since Mitsuharu Misawa was crowned the first champion in April 2001. Shiozaki, a 17-year wrestling veteran, is producing his most compelling work yet in this reign as champ.
“I am honored to have this championship match with Mutoh,” Shiozaki says, also speaking through a translator. “Mutoh is one-of-a-kind, the opponent where I can show what I know I am capable of accomplishing. This is very important for me.
“Mutoh is the only person still active among those in his generation such as the Three Musketeers (Mutoh, Masahiro Chono and Shinya Hashimoto) and Four Pillars of Heaven from All Japan Pro Wrestling (Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue). To me, that is amazing. I respect all of his accomplishments and the history he has made. I am honored to stand across from a legend in this match.”
The venue is Tokyo’s historic Nippon Budokan, which will serve as a picturesque backdrop for NOAH’s hard-hitting, athletic style of pro wrestling. The show will stream on Wrestle Universe, and given the magnitude of this match, it will also be broadcast live with English commentary on FITE.
Shiozaki and Mutoh met in a six-man tag at the end of January, further setting the stage for this match. There is a lot at stake for NOAH, as this is an opportunity to highlight Shiozaki as champion, as well as honor the legacy of the iconic Mutoh. And there is plenty of potential for a Mutoh victory, considering that would open up the possibility of either a rematch for the title or even pitting Mutoh against 24-year-old former champion Kaito Kiyomiya.
“If I can defeat Shiozaki, I will carry NOAH on my back,” Mutoh says. “I will be ready to take the challenge, and I would like to take a challenge from someone who will be representing Pro Wrestling NOAH into the future.”
Shiozaki made his debut on July 4, 2004, a full two decades after Mutoh had his first match in 1984. He has wrestled all over the world, including a run over a decade ago with Ring of Honor. The 39-year-old continues to be inspired by former opponent and longtime friend Daniel Bryan, who wrestled Shiozaki in NOAH in 2007, as well as in ROH, including their phenomenal bout in July of ’07.
“When I wrestled Bryan, he was amazing,” Shiozaki says. “When I now see Bryan while I watch WWE, he is still amazing. When I see him doing so great, that motivates me.”
Mutoh’s work still resonates in the United States, especially dating back to programs with fellow legends like Ric Flair and Sting in WCW. Mutoh noted that he pays tribute to Flair by incorporating the famed figure-four leglock into his repertoire.
“I wrestled with Ric Flair many times and he applied the figure-four leglock so many times,” Mutoh says. “He was a great champion. In his American-style pro wrestling, he utilized this maneuver very effectively. I learned it from him, and now it is one of my signature moves.”
The outcome of this bout is not a foregone conclusion. Over the past 13 months, Shiozaki has represented NOAH with an honor and fighting spirit befitting a champion. He now has the opportunity to place an even brighter spotlight on the promotion in this high-profile match.
“This could be the last chance to do a championship match with Mutoh,” Shiozaki says. “At the end, this will be one way or the other—win or lose—and no matter how it goes, I am proud that our championship match will leave another mark on GHC history. I am proud to be champion, I am honored to have this match, and I will show to the world that I am NOAH.”
Keeping up with the younger Shiozaki will be no easy task for Mutoh, who had a double knee replacement in March 2018. Despite wrestling a far different style than he did as a younger performer, Mutoh shared that he has no regrets that he chose pro wrestling over following his father’s occupation as a gardener.
“I am getting older, but I still can’t think of my life being away from pro wrestling,” Mutoh says. “For me, pro wrestling is my life. My daily routine still revolves around pro wrestling.”
Older stars returning to the ring is not a new phenomenon in pro wrestling, but Mutoh plans to make this match unique. More than just a comeback, he wants to seize the moment and reignite people’s joy of pro wrestling—and accomplish that in his own distinct manner.
“Shiozaki is a great opponent,” Mutoh says. “He has power, speed and stamina. I see Misawa’s mind and Kobashi’s style in Shiozaki, and he is a distinguished champion, but I have a lot to prove here.
“Wrestlers in my generation, such as [Manabu] Nakanishi and [Jushin] Liger, made their retirement last year, so it looks like the mandatory retirement is around 50 years old. I say the hell with that. I hope to be the one to inspire and give energy to the world that is feeling down right now, and I will do my best and beat the champion.”
The Undertaker on Roman Reigns and Drew McIntyre
The Undertaker made headlines with recent unflattering comments on the state of the WWE locker room.
On a recent episode of The Joe Rogan Experience, ’Taker (real name Mark Calaway) said, “I’ll probably piss a lot of people off, but they need to hear it. It is what it is. To the young guys, ‘Oh, he’s a bitter old guy.’ I’m not bitter. I did my time, I’m good. I walked away when I learned to walk away. I just think the product is a little soft.”
Calaway has certainly earned a right to his opinion on the product. And while it is fairly common for a legend to think fondly of his own era, it was surprising that Calaway did not do more to highlight some of today’s brightest stars—the same ones also responsible for some of his magical moments.
The mystique and allure of The Undertaker has existed for decades, but the vast majority of recent matches took place against talent currently employed by WWE. His final match, the cinematic “Boneyard” encounter, was with AJ Styles, who is one of the most prominent stars in today’s WWE locker room. He worked WrestleMania 31 with Bray Wyatt, who is another integral piece of the current WWE product, and main-evented WrestleMania 33 with Roman Reigns, who did everything in his power to help The Undertaker shine.
Ironically, it was a match with a star of a prior era that dimmed ’Taker’s legacy, which happened two years ago in Saudi Arabia against Bill Goldberg.
Perhaps that would have been a dream match in 1999, but it turned out to be a nightmare in 2019. ’Taker and Goldberg narrowly escaped permanent physical damage in the match, and that would have been a devastating way for either star to be remembered. Fortunately, Goldberg got his mojo back a few months later at that year’s SummerSlam, where the talented Dolph Ziggler bounced around like a Ping-Pong ball for him. ’Taker’s rejuvenation took place a month after the Saudi debacle at Extreme Rules, where he tagged with Roman Reigns against Drew McIntyre and Shane McMahon.
Reigns and McIntyre currently reside as two of WWE’s top stars, and both were integral in restoring his aura, which Calaway acknowledged in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated.
“That match meant a lot to me,” Calaway says. “I go all the way back with Shane to when he was in college. I have a long-lasting relationship with all the Samoans, and Roman is one of the Samoan greats. As a human being, I think the world of Roman. And Drew is one of those genuine guys. Anytime I’m around, he’s right there picking my brain. He’s not doing it because it looks good to others, he does it because he genuinely wants to get better. Those are two legitimately great stars.”
For one final time, the Extreme Rules match captured the essence of The Undertaker in the ring, which makes it very different from the cinematic “Boneyard” match. A hot crowd in Philadelphia breathed life into the affair, and ’Taker was allowed to play an electric rendition of his greatest hits as he laid out McIntyre and Elias, who both took great pride in selling for a legend.
“Elias deserves a lot of credit, too, for that matter, because he was another guy involved in making that match,” Calaway says. “The energy level was high, and I had a bit of comfort working with all those guys.”
The heaving lifting in that match was done by Reigns and McIntyre, currently the top two men’s champions in WWE, which was not lost on Calaway. And although his words were stiffer during the interview with Rogan, Calaway was clear about the importance of that match and the people responsible for making it work, as well as revealing the way he grades his own matches, which could have been reflective in his assessment of today’s WWE product.
“I was trying to erase that stain out of memory [from the Goldberg match],” Calaway says. “I’ve heard from so many people who think they know all about wrestling and what I should do, but no one has any idea how I grade myself. It’s far more severe than people may think, and my expectations for what I do are higher than people think, too. So that was a fun night.
“We were all on the same page, we knew what the objective was, and that match was special. Roman and Drew are very special talents, two of the best at what they do.”
The (online) week in wrestling
- New Japan star Kenta made a surprise appearance last week on AEW Dynamite, adding even more electricity to a show that genuinely feels unpredictable.
- Sasha Banks continues to shine inside and out of the wrestling ring. In addition to appearing on Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Sessions on Feb. 21, she will also serve as the honorary starter and wave the green flag this Sunday at the Daytona 500.
- Highlights from Raw included a return from Shane McMahon and the announcement of the WWE championship match at next week’s Elimination Chamber, which will pit reigning champ Drew McIntyre against AJ Styles, Jeff Hardy, Randy Orton, Sheamus and The Miz in the elimination chamber. Another important match is Bobby Lashley defending the United States championship in a triple-threat against Keith Lee and Matt Riddle. If Lee pins Riddle, he will make an outstanding choice for U.S. champ—and without a clear choice for McIntyre’s opponent at WrestleMania 37, that would also free up Lashley for a shot at the world title.
- There is no one better than Paul Heyman at using the social media forum to enhance the story.
- May Butch Reed rest in peace, and his memories long endure.
- Best wishes to Terry Funk, whose lifetime devotion to pro wrestling has left him in constant hip pain.
- FTR is already pro wrestling’s best in-ring tag team, but a key part of what makes them so special is the way they honor wrestling’s history and stay committed to their characters.
- Hulk Hogan’s appearance on SmackDown highlighting the anniversary of dropping the title to Andre the Giant was a massive letdown. Instead of dedicating time to this segment, Hogan cut a quick promo that had more to do with Edge and his upcoming WrestleMania opponent.
This was a critical moment in the history of WWE. Why not film this ahead of time and do it out of character with Hogan and Ted DiBiase? A comment or two from Vince McMahon would have added a lot, and this type of throwback content should be a weekly staple of WWE programming.
Especially on Raw, which has the tendency to drag at points in its three-hour runtime, these segments could draw interest from the lapsed fan. And it wouldn’t always need to be the talent discussing their match, as it could instead be current stars breaking down classics, like looking back at one of the early Raw meetings pitting CM Punk against Daniel Bryan from February 2012, or insight on Shawn Michaels–Jeff Hardy from February 2008. This would need to be WWE Network–type quality and would provide extra reason to watch the show.
- I was grateful to be part of the absurdly talented crew with the Wrestling Perspective podcast, which featured New Japan star Rocky Romero as guest.
- Nia Jax lost her tables match on Raw against Lana, but she’s having fun with the moment.
- Both titles are on the line in this Laredo Kid–Lio Rush match, with the winner claiming both the AAA cruiserweight championship and the MLW middleweight championship.
Kenta’s arrival in AEW opens a world of possibilities
New Japan Pro Wrestling star Kenta made a surprise appearance in the closing moments of last week’s Dynamite, attacking Jon Moxley and signaling the beginning of a relationship with New Japan on AEW programming.
Moxley is New Japan’s IWGP United States champion, and he has appeared the past couple weeks on NJPW Strong, which airs on the New Japan World streaming service on Friday nights. He will defend the title on Strong against Kenta on Feb. 26, but before then, there is a falls-count-anywhere match on this week’s Dynamite featuring Kenny Omega and Kenta against Moxley and Lance Archer. Never too far from the action are Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson, who are the reigning Impact Wrestling tag champions, as well as the Young Bucks, AEW’s tag champs.
There is so much excitement surrounding this match, and it doesn’t just have to do with the next surprise star to show up on Dynamite. The match is important because it serves as a perfect forum to re-establish Archer as one of the industry’s pre-eminent talents, as well as sets the table for the Moxley–Kenta title match. And the manner in which Moxley turned himself from Dean Ambrose—who was good but not quite great—into an industry-defining star is remarkable.
A critical piece of this story is Omega’s desire to collect championship titles. He already holds the AEW world championship and AAA’s mega championship, and his recent pinfall victory against Rich Swann in a six-man tag at Impact’s Hard to Kill pay-per-view in January is setting up that title bout. And this is where the story becomes even more interesting.
It looks to be headed toward a showdown between Omega and longtime best friend Kota Ibushi, who is the current IWGP heavyweight champion.
That match would be a massive draw. If it took place as the centerpiece on a multipromotion supershow pay-per-view, all parties involved would come away as winners. And even if Ibushi lost to Omega, then New Japan would still have a lot to gain as Kazuchika Okada—who still needs a receipt for his last loss to Omega—could emerge as the hero to dethrone Omega and restore honor in New Japan.
I really enjoy the product that NXT delivers every Wednesday, and that show has so much talent that it will continue to churn out stars well into the future—but for now, there is no competing with Dynamite on Wednesday nights.
Tweet of the Week
The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.