The Single-Match Swift Report: 2001 G1 Tag League Final, Tenzan/Kojima vs. Barton/Steele

The Single-Match Swift Report: 2001 G1 Tag League Final: Hiroyoshi Tenzan/Satoshi Kojima vs. Mike Barton/Jim Steele

There are, to the best of my knowledge, three kinds of Match of the Year candidates (and this applies to both the USA and Japan). There’s the first kind, which are the dead-on locks. These are the matches where it’s a disappotintment if it ISN’T a MoTYC, usually involving guys like Chris Benoit and Kenta Kobashi. Then, there are the ones that kind of sneak up on you…either one or both competitors are the middling type, or it’s a match on a minor show, something like that. Then, there are the “WTF?!” types – you know the kind, I’m sure. Now, here is a match that I would put firmly in the second category, but many on the Internet have placed in the third. I don’t see what their problem with Mike Barton (the former Bart Gunn, if you didn’t know) and Jim Steele (the former Wolf Hawkfield, but if you aren’t a NJPW or Virtua Fighter fan, that means nothing to you). They’re perfectly servicable heavyweights who do pretty well within the context of the Japanese style, and they’re exactly the sort of solid-but-unspectactular types who make a perfect foil for opponents with more flashy offenses. My main problem out of these four lies with 2001-era Tenzan, who I thought was particularly fucking awful. Headbutt, headbutt, Mongolian chop, headbutt…it’s enough to drive someone insane.

So, while many around the Net would intro this by saying: “Man, can you believe it? A Match of the Year candidate with Mike freaking Barton and Jim freaking Steele?”, I’ll do so by saying: “Man, can you believe it? A Match of the Year candidate with freaking TENZAN?”. Yep. You better believe it.

By way of background (and since I’m an unbelievably anal completist), here is each team’s road to the final (results from www.puroresufan.com):

11/30/01: Mike Barton/Jim Steele [2] beat Hiroyoshi Tenzan/Satoshi Kojima [0] (17:33) when Barton used the Barton Buster on Kojima.

12/1/01: Kensuke Sasaki/Dan Devine [2] beat Mike Barton/Jim Steele [2] (13:19) when Sasaki used a cross-armbreaker on Steele.
12/1/01: Osamu Nishimura/Jushin Liger [2] beat Hiroyoshi Tenzan/Satoshi Kojima [0] (25:57) when Liger used a shotei on Tenzan.

12/2/01: Mike Barton/Jim Steele [4] beat Hiroshi Tanahashi/Kenzo Suzuki [2] (16:50) when Steele used the Turbo Drop II on Tanahashi.
12/2/01: Masahiro Chono/Giant Silva [6] beat Hiroyoshi Tenzan/Satoshi Kojima [0] (12:54) when Chono pinned Tenzan after a union sky high lariat.

12/3/01: Mike Barton/Jim Steele [6] beat Osamu Nishimura/Jushin Liger [4] (20:16) when Barton used the Barton Buster on Liger.
12/3/01: Hiroyoshi Tenzan/Satoshi Kojima [2] beat Hiroshi Tanahashi/Kenzo Suzuki [2] (13:04) when Kojima used a lariat on Tanahashi.

12/701: Mike Barton/Jim Steele [7] vs. Scott Norton/Super J (the fake Sting) went to a draw (30:00) when the time limit expired.
12/7/01: Hiroyoshi Tenzan/Satoshi Kojima [4] beat Yuji Nagata/Manabu Nakanishi [4] (18:11) when Tenzan used the Tenzan Tombstone Driver on Nakanishi.

12/8/01: Yuji Nagata/Manabu Nakanishi [6] beat Mike Barton/Jim Steele [7] (18:44) when Nakanishi used an Argentine Backbreaker on Steele.
12/8/01: Hiroyoshi Tenzan/Satoshi Kojima [6] beat Kensuke Sasaki/Dan Devine [6] (14:28) when Kojima used a lariat on Devine.

12/9/01: Mike Barton/Jim Steele [9] beat Masahiro Chono/Giant Silva [6] (11:44) when Barton pinned Chono.
12/9/01: Hiroyoshi Tenzan/Satoshi Kojima [8] beat Scott Norton/Super J [7] (15:32) when Tenzan used a moonsault on Super J.

12/11/01: Semifinal: Hiroyoshi Tenzan/Satoshi Kojima beat Yuji Nagata/Manabu Nakanishi (17:25) when Kojima used a lariat on Nakanishi.

So, the story is this: the All-Japan invaders (they work for NJPW now, but not in 2001) were consistent throughout the tournament, beating the teams they were supposed to beat (and getting the upset wins over TenKoji and Chono/Silva). Not only that, but they are well-rested, and have that win over their opponents in the first match of the group stage. Conversely, the home favorites have already wrestled a 17-minute slugfest over one of the tournament favorites, have the prior loss to the invaders, and had to recover from a very slow start (including one of the biggest upset losses in G1 history, with Liger pinning Tenzan) to even make it to the semifinals.

The stage is set. Here we go, as 6,500 fans look on in the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium. The gaijin come out first to Concerto Moon’s “Waltz For Masquerade”, and then the crowd favorites come out to the “TENZAN/RUSH” combo theme. With the preliminaries done, it’s on!

Steele and Tenzan start us off. Long lockup ends up in the corner, but neither guy can get the advantage – this is a pretty common opening spot in Japanese matches, as a sort of parity-establisher. Lockup again, and Tenzan goes right to the eyes to take control. He works Steele over a bit, and takes it into a headlock. Steele eventually fights out, and it goes into the no-selling of shoulderblocks bit. For those unfamiliar with puro, this is also a common occurrence – but, it’s more a fighting spirit thing as opposed to a Kevin Nash thing. With no luck there, Tenzan goes to Mongolian chops. Yurgh. As is usual for a match of this type, the next exchanges remain even and sequential, as Steele’s flying shoulderblock is repaid shortly after with a flying Mongolian chop (you see why I am SUCH a fan of the Tenzan of this time period, I’m sure). Tenzan keeps on him (believe me, I’m saving myself the trouble of writing and you the trouble of reading every stomp and punch…that’s the cure for insomnia, in my estimation). Steele reverses a whip, then gives us our first big bump of the match, as he vaults himself clear over the turnbuckle and to the floor. Guess he had the coordinates wrong on THAT bodypress. Steele kicks the guardrail in frustration, and rightfully so…he hasn’t been able to do much with Tenzan so far. Tenzan catches him coming in, and takes a second to rile up the crowd. He has Steele on the apron, and they fight over a suplex. Steele comes wrenchingly close to getting it, but Tenzan wins the battle right after. However, this whole sequence is made by Barton on the outside, as he’s living and dying on the apron with every swing in momentum of that mini-battle. To me, tag team wrestling is almost as much on the apron as it is in the ring. Finally, around the 5:00 mark or so, Steele is able to muscle Tenzan into his corner, and the tag is made.

Barton doesn’t waste any time, immediately putting the boots to Tenzan. Amrwringer into a shoulder hold, but Tenzan fights out, and goes to the eyes in order to make the tag. I’m saying this a lot, but this is also a common occurrence in Japan – in tag team matches, the teams will pair off, and each pair will have a longish segment with very little in the way of transition in between. Sometimes they just both tag out at once, often there’s only a few seconds in between, like this match.

At any rate, Kojima’s in, and goes right on the attack. He opts for a knifehand chop, which then leads into the also-common spot of trading chops, where each guy is daring the other to hit them even harder than they did last time. Barton has enough, and punches his way out. They trade some basic stuff, but Kojima wins that battle. A running somersault senton puts the home team (so to speak) firmly in control. They fight into the corner, and Kojima whips him, following with a cross-corner lariat. Keep in mind that there’s two grades of lariat in Japan…there’s the more garden-variety one that is primarily a wear-down move, and then there’s the Lariat used as a finisher (often called the Western Lariat, in honor of the great Stan Hansen). Kojima throws a fist or two, and now Tenzan’s back in.

Tenzan seems to have a sleeper countered, but he goes to the eyes yet again. But, Barton is able to fight his way out, allowing him to get to his corner. Again, for the benefit of those who don’t get to see this stuff, sometimes the pairs have two or three segments together before the match deviates from sequential order. Also, you’re not going to see a traditional “face-in-peril” segment as often as you do in the States. And, when you do, you’re certainly not going to see it (or the corresponding hot tag) 4 minutes into a match. It’s certainly not for the ADD-types, that’s for sure. Anyway, Barton tags out to Steele.

Steele gets the advantage, and a back elbow off an Irish whip gets the first two-count of the match (8:00 or so in). He tags right out to Barton, and we’re treated to a battle of the chops, knifehand vs. Mongolian varities. How is anyone supposed to take the latter seriously when the first sounds like it hurts so damn bad (and, by all accounts, actually does)? Maybe the Mongolian chops really do hurt, but I can’t take Kin Korn Karn’s big move in the NES game Pro Wrestling seriously. Sorry. It’s definitely a battle between him and Fighter Hayabusa as to who was the lowest of the enhancement talent in THAT federation. Anyway, Tenzan wins, and tags out to Kojima.

With that, we have our first neat double-team of the match, as Kojima enters via slingshit elbowdrop, to match Tenzan’s falling headbutt. That gets 2, but Tenzan spends too much time jawing with Steele. Kojima holds Barton up, and in very American fashion, Tenzan ends up lariating his own partner. A big left hand to the gut keeps Kojima down long enough for Barton to get the tag to Steele.

Steele hits a few HHH-style facebusters, and connects with a Russian legsweep for 2. He then moves from Helmsley to Hennig (it’s even consistent alphabetically!) with the rolling necksnap, and springs right out of that to knock Tenzan off the apron. Meanwhile, Masahiro Chono is doing color…the significance of that is that TenKoji were both in…shit. I’m not sure if it was still nWo Japan at this point, or if Chono had already quit and taken everyone not named Mutoh to form Team 2000. Probably the latter, this being in 2001 and all. Nice elbowdrop gets 2. Now, around the 10:00 mark, this is the first sustained offense that either team has had up to this point.

Tag to Barton who goes for (and gets) first a trifecta of bodyslams, then a hat trick of elbowdrops. That gets 2. Kojima just misses a tag, as Barton tauntingly and methodically beats him down. The crowd is starting to wake up now, with the first “Ko-ji-ma!” chant of the match. Kojima fights back, but some elbowsmashes take care of that. Barton calls for the Barton Buster (fall-forward powerbomb), but Kojima flips out, and gets the desperation backdrop suplex.

That lets him get the tag to Tenzan, who comes in as the American style House O’Fire, except with his supremely crappy offense. He does do the one halfway decent wear-down move he had back then, though – the one where he has the guy in the corner, he goes up to the top rope, then falls forward with his knee against the guy’s head. That gets 2. Tenzan stomps away, but runs into a spinning sideslam for 2. As Tenzan is rolling out of the ring, Kojima makes the mistake of looking away…so Barton clobbers him, and in highly unusual fashion (for Barton, anyway), comes off the top with a plancha to the floor on Tenzan. Barton’s in first, and although the camera misses it, he makes the tag to Steele.

Barton goes back to the floor to clobber Tenzan some more, while Steele takes out Kojima. The crowd is getting behind Tenzan, who is rolled into the ring, and immediately covered for two very close two-counts. See, while the big dives to the outside are mainly throwaway moves here in the States, those near-falls (especially when the cover comes around 20-30 seconds after the actual move) make the dive really mean something. Steele goes to the camel clutch, but Kojima quickly has enough of screaming for Tenzan to escape, and makes the save himself. Steele hangs on though, and it takes two more stomps to finally pry him loose (fitting in with the theme of the recap, this too is a common puro “fighting spirit” spot).

Steele makes the tag. They double-team Tenzan for a bit, but Barton is about to be on the losing end (again) of a chop battle before he elbows his way out of it. Nice hanging vertical suplex from the gaijin gets 2. Puro newcomers, notice how we’re at the 13:00 mark or so, and the most devastating moves have been lariats, a backdrop suplex, and a basic plancha. This is the heavyweight “Strong Style”…it’ll pick up later, I promise. By way of a warning, if this seems like it would bore you, you might want to hunt down the junior-heavyweight sprints instead. Find a nice 6-man tag with guys like Liger and Kanemoto, and you’ll be set. Anyway, Barton has tagged back out to Steele.

Tenzan shocks him right away with a quick sunset flip for 2, but Steele forces him into the corner, and connects with three straight running lariats. He follows by spiking him with a DDT, as the crowd begins to get into it again, urging Tenzan on. Steele connects again with the DDT, but he wants a third (and why not, him and Barton have been doing it all match). Tenzan tries to fight it, but gets planted again in short order. This also makes sense, because both the Turbo Drop II (spinning Doctor Bomb) and the original Turbo Drop (tilt-a-whirl powerslam off of the ropes, kinda like a Oklahoma Stampede, now that I think of it) work the head/neck. So does Barton’s big moves, for that matter. That gets 2, so Steele knocks Kojima off the apron, seemingly out of frustration more than anything else. He whips Tenzan into the ropes, and sure enough, the Turbo Drop follows. It only gets 2, which isn’t shocking – Japanese fans tend to be extremely knowledgable, and if they don’t buy the move as a finish, it’s probably because there’s no way it’s going to be one. Sure enough, Tenzan kicks out, but it does get the first “uaaaaaahhhh”-with-foot stomping that you may have read about in Mick Foley’s book. Steele says this is it, and goes for the Turbo Drop II. Kojima tries to save, but Steele elbows him away, and then succeeds in hitting the TD II. It gets a VERY close two before Kojima can make the diving soccer goalie-style save.

The place is ROCKING now as Barton jumps in to incapacitate Kojima with a lariat and a sleeperhold. Steele and Tenzan are still legal, of course. It looks like he’s going for the TD II again, but he takes it into an Argentine backbreaker (like A-Train’s finisher, but without the dropping part). Kojima breaks away from Barton (the camera misses how, but you can hear Barton hit the mat), and makes the save. Not satisfied, he gives Steele the Koji Cutter to boot. The crowd is urging Tenzan in again, but he’s all the way across the ring from Kojima, and Barton and Steele (although both are prone), are both in his way. Steele is up first, but he runs into a Mountain Bomb (basically a back bodydrop, but you’re holding onto the guy instead of launching him into the air). Barton is still down, so Tenzan is finally able to make the second hot tag of the match, this time to Kojima.

Elbowsmash for Steele! Elbowsmash for Barton! Dropkick on Steele! He sends Barton out, allowing him to get the cross-corner jumping elbowsmash-then-Bakayaro elbow (diving elbow drop with crowd chant-a-long beforehand) sequence for two. They trade elbowsmashes (keep in mind that the Bakayaro elbow isn’t a finisher of any sort…it’s more for the crowd participation than anything else), but Kojima wins the battle with an inverted atomic drop, followed by a dragonscrew legwhip. Koji’s too tired to follow up, though, and Steele manages to vault onto the top rope for his flying shoulderblock. He knocks Tenzan off the apron (smart strategy, as he could have come in and prevented the tag otherwise), and makes the tag…thus ending our one heel-in-peril segment.

Steele slams Kojima down, and they both go up top. They both hit flying splashes, and Steele neutralizes Tenzan as Barton covers for 2. Barton gets his big left hook into the body, while Steele still has Tenzan tied up. Barton goes for, and gets, the Barton Buster. Cover, but Kojima kicks out at 2, in the closest near-fall yet. Osaka is going APESHIT as Barton says this is it. The “Ko-ji-ma” chants start up again, as Barton runs the ropes. This has disaster for the gaijin written all over it (if you follow this stuff long enough) and sure enough, Kojima damn near decapitates him with the Western Lariat.

Both guys tag out, and for those skipping ahead, this is the denouement of the match. Both guys lariat each other at the same time, then bounce off the ropes and do so again. The third time isn’t any more fruitful than the last two, but on the fourth, Tenzan is finally smart enough to opt for the kneel kick (not a knee kick, this is a version of a spin kick) instead of a lariat. That gets 2, before Barton saves. Kojima cancels him out though, and then Tenzan comes over to help Kojima take him out with the 3-D (not sure what their name for it was…I’m going to go with “union Koji Cutter” and move on with my life). Barton’s pretty much done, leaving Steele in alone with TenKoji. Kojima bounces off the ropes, and hammers him with a Western Lariat to the back of the head. Steele doesn’t go down, but he does walk right into the Tenzan Tombstone Driver…

…which he kicks out of at about 2 and nine-zillionths. The crowd pops pretty huge in surprise and appreciation for Steele’s fighting spirit. However, the last of our theme of common puro occurences comes into play here. Very often at the end of a match, a guy will take a series of finishers, and kick out of all of them. But, then a basic move (or a lesser finisher) will then be enough to finish the guy off. Unlike America, Strong Style isn’t a Race to a Finisher…it’s a race to hit enough of them to finally wear the other guy down. I like the latter better, to be completely honest. Anyway, Tenzan comes off the top with a moonsault, and that keeps Steele down for the three count, ending what turned out to be a pretty gallant challenge from the gaijin invaders. The resulting crowd pop shows how effective Barton and Steele were in this role – if the fans didn’t buy them as a threat to TenKoji, they wouldn’t react the way they did to this finish, that’s for damn sure.

Kojima and Tenzan celebrate like they’ve won the World Cup, the fans are rocking out, and a lot of very surprised people have to admit that this match was pretty fucking awesome. First of all, I’m biased towards finishes…if the beginning and middle of a match don’t actively take away from the experience, then a brilliantly-executed finish is usually all it takes to make me really like a match. However, this was several notches above that, in my opinion. The gaijin team were more than servicable during the face-in-peril segments, and they timed the big moves exactly right (and spaced them out well) to maximize their impact on the crowd and to the quality of the match. And, while Tenzan (and even Kojima, to a much lesser extent) are certainly not going to win any Best Offense in Japan awards, they played their part perfectly, too. This was a great Strong Style match with insane crowd heat (especially towards the end), one or two people working over their heads, and an excellent finish. This was definitely worthy of being a G1 Final, and when you factor in the fact that TenKoji already had wrestled for 17 minutes earlier in the evening, you have to tip your hat to this match that much more.

2001 G1 Tag League Final: Hiroyoshi Tenzan/Satoshi Kojima beat Mike Barton/Jim Steele (24:02) when Tenzan used a moonsault on Steele.


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