Monday, June 29, 2020

Yuji Nagata Still Has Something to Prove

Nagata and Suzuki showed how playing with perception is the last bit of deception left in wrestling's tank
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After a week of writing about the worst of the people in the business, I think writing about the things in wrestling that make it good is in order. I'm not writing this to extol the virtues of either man as people, because I don't know the first thing about their personal lives. Wrestling, like the sports and entertainment it is uniquely modeled after, should provide escape even in dark times. I'm woefully behind on the New Japan Cup at present, but I caught up on the left side of the bracket over the weekend. Eight matches in, and it's no 2019 G1 Climax, but that's okay given the mismatches in stature or ability between the two wrestlers. The one match that I, like many of my peers, had circled for that side of the tournament was Yuji Nagata vs. Minoru Suzuki.

The match had two distinct rhythms that probably were not split right down the middle in terms of time, but felt like their weight was equal. The first half showed a slugfest between the two wrestlers where they traded blows without collapsing in trauma or exhaustion until Suzuki took Nagata down with force and purpose. The second half was pretty much a textbook Suzuki bullying that should have ended in an easy win but that culminated in Nagata stealing a victory in total shock, going against the grain of what the momentum of the match might have suggested (and yet in wrestling parlance, when two wrestlers are of equal stature, one might expect the guy getting his ass handed to him all match to pull a horseshoe out of their asses to get a fluke pin to win). It was deeply satisfying for the simple yet unexpected story it told, the tale of the massive chip on Nagata's shoulder.

This first round match was described after the fact by some as a "dad fight," which is perfectly accurate if one guy's dad was a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Peeling back the layers showed more depth to the story they were trying to tell. For context, both wrestlers are on the other side of 50 years, both with similar levels of experience. Despite the apparent parity, Suzuki has far more cultural cache, whether it be "Kaze Ni Nare," his position at the vanguard of shoot-style wrestling, or his general sour disposition as leader of a prominent faction. Sure, Nagata had a big moment in the sun with American fans showing up on World Championship Wrestling's Monday Nitro and he ascended the top of the mountain in New Japan unlike Suzuki.

That being said, the number of fans who remember him WCW who might have New Japan World subs feels dwarfed in comparison to what Suzuki means in the here and now. It doesn't matter that they're both the same age. Suzuki feels like he could beat Tetsuya Naito right now and carry the banner, even if that won't ever happen, while Nagata's place in opening card tags teaming with a random Young Lion (especially now that Manabu Nakanishi has retired) against Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Satoshi Kojima, feels not just earned, but comfortable for him. In the eyes of many, Suzuki is a "young" 52, while Nagata's same age feels "old."

Through that lens, the entire match takes on a different, weightier feel. Granted, I will never begrudge anyone's analysis of a wrestling match, especially when theirs isn't looking for subtext where none exists. I'm perfectly content in taking criticism that I may be looking too hard for something that isn't there that I might as well be writing headcanon. Then again, Kevin Kelly made sure to note that this was the third meeting between Nagata and Suzuki in the first round of the New Japan Cup, and that Suzuki had won both times in the past. Unlike in All Elite Wrestling, commentary isn't just there for noise. Kelly says the things you should be looking at.

Nagata had to climb uphill to win, and with that piece of info, the strike trading in the first "half" of the match is now Blue Justice valiantly standing against a competitor with "real" bona fides behind his strikes while being able to stand and deliver responses of his own. The second "half" shows Nagata weathering the all-out assault from a dangerous and ruthless opponent, and yet he's able to get to the ropes on every rear naked choke. He is able to swing his legs to prevent Suzuki from ever hitting the Gotch-style piledriver. Suzuki takes him into deep waters, but Nagata keeps getting his head up for air, and at the precariously last possible second, Nagata, the amateur wrestler and master of leverage and counterwrestling, uses Suzuki's own momentum against him and sinks him for good in the form of a bridging Saito suplex. He lives to fight one more day, and wouldn't you know it, his second match would be against the company's ace, Kazuchika Okada. I haven't gotten to that match yet.

Nagata as the old gunslinger looking to prove that he still has one more big win in him is not a terribly unique story to have told, as promotions have been telling it since the dawn of professional wrestling. Extreme Championship Wrestling, for example, went all the way with it and had Terry Funk winning its World Championship at the centerpiece of its first ever foray onto pay-per-view. Having that moment come against someone just as old as him is both a curious move and one that shows the juxtaposition of two men with similar backgrounds just perceived differently. Wrestling at its heart was borne of deception anyway. The old carnivals would put their unseemly champions against local tough guys and clean up showing that not all books can be judged by their covers. That deception crept into the modern era with the play that promoters and wrestlers would try to pass the work off as a shoot, although again, I keep having to mention that the actual point in time when the fans actually were in on the joke is always in dispute and is probably earlier than anyone might want to admit.

As more and more fans not only get that it's supposed to be a work but revel in it, the art of deception has to keep moving in less obvious avenues. The less refined among promoters attempt to blur the lines between reality and stage-show through clunky "worked shoots," which became passe almost as soon as they started becoming hip. Playing with audience perceptions, however, is perhaps the best way for savvy storytellers to get their kicks in being able to trick an audience without fundamentally betraying what it is they're actually doing in the first place. The idea that wrestling is fake is not lost on fans; they're there not in spite of it, but BECAUSE of it, because it is visceral theater whose action can be controlled completely by the players looking to carry out a story rather than athletes trying to win.

In a medium where a mid-30s Kenny Omega can still be seen as an up-and-comer or where Randy Orton could become boring and stale before that 30th birthday, age means less and less as years go on. So you can have a situation where a 52-year-old man can show that he has one last big score left, that his guns still fire, against someone of the same age and even a LESS impressive in-kayfabe resume (Suzuki being the King of PANCRASE and a founding father of mixed martial arts gives him a leg up regardless of any worked titles, to be quite honest), and it doesn't come off as hokey or hollow. When in the hands people who know what they're doing, a story like what was told in this match feels genuine and elicits a deep emotional response. Whether marveling at it as a hard-hitting dad fight or feeling some kind of resonance of a deeper story, Nagata and Suzuki did what many wrestlers set out to do and few of them succeed at on any given night. They created pro wrestling magic.