I missed Yuji Nagata.

The word missed in this sentence meaning that he passed me by. At the peak of his powers in New Japan, I was still under the impression that Shawn Michaels should have beat John Cena at WrestleMania 23. By the time I discovered Japanese wrestling years ago, I skipped the 2000s right into the 90s. New Japan didn’t enter my view until the mid-2010s by the time that Nagata’s run at the top was long done. On forums I frequented, Nagata was never greeted with much love so I never thought to seek him out.

By the time I watched Yuji Nagata for myself, it was a banger against Tomohiro Ishii from last year’s New Japan Cup. The man could hit hard and he put on a great match but there’s not much more I could tell you as he didn’t advance that year. Occasionally, I’ll catch him on the New Japan undercards in one of the plentiful dad tags.

So yeah, I missed out on Yuji Nagata.

Despite all that, I was excited for this match. I’d tuned in for the Together Project Special and Suzuki and Nagata’s interactions on that show made me incredibly optimistic. They nicely telegraphed what they were planning to do on the show tonight. Just beat the shit out of each other for a while. That’s absolutely something I can get behind especially coming from a master like Minoru Suzuki. Even with his limited mobility, the man continues to be one of the best in ring performers in the world. He put on a classic last year against Jushin Liger and then another classic against one of the best wrestlers in the world this year in Jon Moxley. He is endlessly charismatic in the ring and he can hit hard. Perfect combination.

For the first few minutes in the ring, the match pays off on its early promises. Suzuki and Nagata waste no time getting into the meat and bones of this match. No perfunctory mat exchanges for these two. Straight to the striking. They spend a solid ten minutes just exchanging blows and though it’s simple, it’s never repetitive and it hardly feels redundant. Suzuki still hits with a lot of vicious force in his old age and Nagata more than gave as good as he got. Matches like this are tailor made for the empty arena setting of the COVID-era as you can be sure to hear every blow. No thigh slapping here, no sir.

When the fight starts to spill to the floor, I thought that they had begun to lose me. It was some silly shenanigans with Suzuki bumping the ref and going after Nagata with a chair. Fair enough, it was fun while it lasted but this will definitely not be anything less than good.

It got so much better.

Suzuki’s attack on the outside allows him to establish control. Where Nagata had been meeting him blow for blow, now Suzuki had stolen the advantage through nefarious means. He corners Nagata and bullies him with strikes. He even hits a short knee strike right to the head that we get to see up close. All the while, we get some wonderful close up shots of Nagata’s face. He’s selling his ass off but not in a way that makes him look pathetic, overdramatic, or even beaten. He looks weathered instead, worn down to the edge but still holding on.

Nagata has some fight left in him. He can still hit Suzuki as hard as Suzuki can hit him. But Suzuki’s a madman. We know this about him. He’s laughed in the face of every blow through the entire match. He grins with sadistic glee any time someone dares to take the fight to him. It fuels him and eggs him on. By the time they return to exchanging blows, Nagata sells like he’s on the verge of dropping. It might be one of the best examples of spaghetti legged unsteadiness since the likes of someone like Kawada. But the man stands his ground.

The fight continues as Suzuki starts to panic, as he always does. He’s impatient and rushes through the sequence he needs to put Nagata away. He grabs him in a choke but refuses to hold on long enough to make Nagata pass out. He goes for the Gotch Piledriver but Nagata is able to power out. Even with a busted lip, the son of a bitch just won’t go down.

As Nagata continues to fight, bleeding from the mouth, and crashing headlong into the maniac in the ring with him, I couldn’t help but root for the guy. He and I have no history. He’s only a name in the long story of New Japan, a match on a to-be-watched list, someone to be evaluated down the line with a more clinical eye than a feeling one.

I felt for Yuji Nagata here.

By the time he starts dropping Suzuki on his head, I was so invested. Neither man had bumped all match long that by the time it happened, it was the highest of high spots. The grandest of moments. Another crushing back suplex and the unthinkable happens. Nagata wins.

And that’s what makes this match so great. I missed out on Yuji Nagata. But through this match, through this win, I have the tiniest reason to care. I have the sliver of hope for progression, advancement. I have something to hold onto, now, here, in the present where we’re together in this time. Will he get past Okada in the second round? Probably not.

But we can hope.

And sometimes that’s enough.


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