Match of the Week Club: Tetsuya Naito vs. Michael Elgin (NJPW 9/25/16)

Every week on Place to Be Nation, a combination of Steven Graham, Glenn Butler, Peter Saladino, Brad Woodling, Tanner Teat, and Chad Campbell review one match from the world of wrestling that YOU as the viewer should seek out!

Feedback from last week:

@thejoshdean ***1/4 a fun little match. 1st time seeing Riddle, heard hype like he’s already the greatest but some of his stuff was weak

JKWebb ‏@milkywaychamp #MOTWC #PTBN good stuff – enjoyed the leg work – Riddle is a natural, and it’s amazing how good he is already ***3/4 @Place2BeNation

This week’s entry is Michael Elgin defending the New Japan Intercontinental Championship against LIJ leader Tetsuya Naito.

The competitors:

Michael Elgin – Big Mike has been reviatalized in NJPW the past year and has shown himself to be very effective as one of the top gaijin within the company. From teaming with Tanahashi to defeating Kenny Omega for the IC title, Big Mike is seen as a legit draw within NJPW and was used to headline the biggest Destruction show here.

Tetsuya Naito- The leader of the most popular unit in New Japan, LIJ. Naito has been the IWGP champion this year and also made a deep run in the G-1 Climax tournament. Naito looks to be one of the big players in New Japan for the immediate future.

The storyline:

These two guys are consistently on opposite sides of the ring in tours with different tags. They had a really crackling match in the G-1 Climax. The storyline on the tour leading up to this match focused on the damage that was done to Elgin’s leg. .

Glenn Butler:
This match was captivating from the moment Naito toyed with Elgin by slowly stripping in front of him. That’s a power move, and something we can all respect and learn from. Use it in your business meetings, folks. (Note: Place to Be Nation does not officially endorse this as a business strategy. –Brad)

Michael Elgin is an interesting case: he has the build and the moveset to be a great big man, but he’s merely indy-big. (Imagine him standing up to someone like, say, Kane.) His big-man vibe is still strong, though — it does look wholly unnatural when he tries to fly — and the storyline element of the injured knee adds even more to his power moves, from the delayed suplex at the beginning of the match to the wheelbarrow German suplex to the combination Samoan drop/fallaway slam on Naito’s stablemates. By the time Elgin hits the rolling Germans it’s a thing of joy that he’s fighting around and fighting through the injured knee, and the crowd treats it that way.

Naito, to his credit, did great in exploiting the knee, including a sick dropkick from the apron to the barrier. This feels like a long main event that earns its length, and one that puts over both competitors; Naito obviously by winning, and Elgin by fighting as long and as well as he did through the injury. It’s basic stuff, carried off with skill and panache.

Peter Saladino:

This main event of the Destruction Tour was built on its participants’ opposite personalities.  In one corner is Elgin, straightforward, solid and earnest.  He’s there to fight and to win without subterfuge or guile.  In the other is Naito, who is sneaky, untrustworthy and uncaring.  They are perfect opposites and perfect foils.  Naito’s uncaring disdain for what he is doing is highlighted by just how much Elgin does seem to care.  The battle itself feels like something out of the animal kingdom.  Elgin is like an elephant straightforwardly chasing and bludgeoning his opponent.  Naito functions as a jackal, picking his spots and going for the knee to bring him down to earth.  When the rest of Los Ingobernables of Japan ran in to interfere, it felt like the entire pack descending upon the large brute.  It was like watching the Discovery Channel.  Elgin could fight off one, but not all of them and they knew it.  It was a well-paced reminder that brute force will fall before strategy and guile and a numbers advantage.

It’s also worth noting how incredible Naito’s been the last year since returning from Mexico.  He was coming off a SHAMEFULLY bad run as an attempted main event face that was topped off by fans voting his Wrestle Kingdom IWGP Title match go on in the midcard.  NJPW spent a great long while trying to make Naito into the next Tanahashi, a happy smiling new top face to carry the next decade.  Hitting the breaks and changing course let them know what they really had.  He may not have been the next Tanahashi, but in turning into the uncaring, rebellious villain (and very likely future anti-hero), they clearly have found their next Nakamura.  That’s why him holding (and throwing away into the air) the Intercontinental Title felt like destiny.

Brad Woodling:

This contest is an amazing example of how a main event and title change can build to a crescendo, mixing in pointed limb work and selling plus more modern tropes like an extended ref bump and outside interference, AND have everything feel completely in place with both guys looking extremely strong. This may be the best booked match of 2016. It’s an equal credit to both Naito and Elgin because both were executing flawlessly late into the match. Elgin does his double suplex on members of LIJ almost 30 minutes in!

There are two phases of the match that I think are worth exploring. The first is limb work and the timing of selling and psychology within a match. Elgin is a big power guy, it makes incredible sense for Naito to just be vicious on his knee. He hits chop blocks and a somewhat crazy dropkick from the apron to Elgin’s draped knee over the guardrail. This works, Elgin is limping and selling the bum knee, and Naito can start with more damaging power moves to weather Elgin down. Elgin gets in a great hope spot when he reverses a swinging DDT off the ropes into a huge falcon arrow. It’s a great power spot and Elgin is still favoring his knee. One thing I regularly critique in wrestling critiques is when a reviewer admonishes someone for not selling through the entire match – or especially at the end. There needs to be a big disclaimer there – it all depends on the dynamics of the limb work in the match.  If a guy only works the knee for let’s say the first third of a match, why is it inconceivable for the other guy to eventually heal and shrug off a limp? Here Elgin takes control and Naito goes right back to the knee for a second limb sequence. Elgin never completely brushes this work off, but he’s also not dragging his leg around 20 minutes later. His selling has transitioned into overall fatigue, as it should after 35 minutes, and this wear and tear all plays into the finish.

The second is the extended interference segment off a ref bump that sees Naito essentially rake Red Shoes’ face and throw him down as Elgin puts him up for a suplex. LIJ runs out and (perhaps like I) you start to groan a bit, possibly in a very meta-way because this element is conceivably threatening your enjoyment of the match and how you can contextualize it later in a review. And even though you really don’t think it’s over, you still breathe a huge sigh of relief when Elgin kicks out of Naito’s attack. To quickly callback to the booking comment I made earlier, this whole spot, which sees Elgin save KUSHIDA and Tanahashi after they came out to help, and throwing LIJ out of the ring (and that double suplex), really made Elgin look strong. It was just another piece in protecting his performance in the midst of a title change.

The finish is well done also – it isn’t cheap, it is not a fluke. Naito makes a big kickout so Elgin escalates his power finishing moves, Naito reverses and then hits his finish. I was rooting for Elgin to kickout but NJPW doesn’t waste two counts here. This is the end of an incredibly hard-fought battle.

Chad Campbell:

I am and always will be a sucker for limb selling. The nuances and actions of what conveys efficient selling is one of the most subjective topics of 2016 wrestling. Should your limb be permanently damaged? Is 5 or 10 minutes a sufficient amount of time for the limb to heal? Should you change your strategy based on the damage?

Michael Elgin’s leg selling in this match was sublime. Just me typing those words about the effective selling job Big Mike did in a match seems like a foreign concept just two years ago. Elgin has been completely revitalized and there was a great sense of satisfaction in watching him and Naito deliver on this huge stage with a main event caliber match. Naito himself was left for dead by the New Japan faithful when he went on a tour of Mexico a couple of years ago. He returned with a tranquillo attitude and has been riding that wave in the upper ranks of New Japan since then.

The match was centered around the leg damage done to Elgin. This was not a surprise as the tag matches leading up to this match had a focus on that as well. I really enjoyed the touches that Naito threw in here to make this match differentiate itself. The dropkick into the railing as well as building up to the ankle pick submission which really laid out the damage that had been done. It was also extremely effective that Elgin’s power moves were so neutralized. He was able to overcome the pain and execute some holds in the later portions of the match but not without consequence. After the before mentioned ankle pick submission, Naito did a great bit of subtle selling where he looks a little hazy to show that Elgin still had a shot in this if he was able to out power Naito with just the right amount of offensive arsenal.

The closing stages with the interference made me audibly groan while watching. This marred the Bushi vs. KUSHIDA junior title match that headlined the Destruction in Tokyo show a few days prior to this event. However, Elgin being able to overcome the odds and attack all members of LIJ really gave him the babyface rub that allowed the viewer to believe that no amount of Naito damage was going to be sufficient. This led right into the finishing stretch where the ever cagey Naito had one more trick up his sleeve and hit a Destino as a counter for a suplex. I really enjoyed the fact that Naito hits the move again to ensure he has a good chance of winning. Naito clinching the injured leg for the pinfall is the cherry on top of the great performance both men turned in. Overall, a really great match and one of the most satisfying New Japan main events in 2016. ****1/4