Tatsumi Fujinami © vs Masahiro Chono
IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match
To some New Japan fans, Masahiro Chono was the least of Three Musketeers, especially when it came to in ring work. Keiji Muto offered an enigmatic and dynamic offense that felt light years ahead of many of his peers, whilst Shinya Hashimoto was a no nonsense, arse kicking machine who was like the proverbial bull in a china shop, smashing anything that got in his way. Especially following a series of injuries, Chono wasn’t quite the worker he once used to be, but he did have one thing that shone brighter than either Muto or Hashimoto.
He was seriously cool.
Whether you consider it charisma or his looks or the presentation of himself, Chono exuded cool, generally as a means to deflect away from his diminishing technical abilities within the ring. It is no surprise that Chono was chosen to be the leader of NWO Japan, not only because he had worked with WCW as part of the working agreement between the two promotions, but he fit the ethic that the NWO were supposed to have in terms of the laid back aura that permeated his very being. He made being bad look good effortlessly.
For someone synonymous with New Japan through the turn of the millennium, it is odd to consider that Chono only ever had one run with the IWGP Heavyweight Title, one that was curtailed after he vacated the title due to a neck injury. What he did manage by winning the belt for the first time was end the long term heavyweight prospects of Tatsumi Fujinami by halting his sixth – and last – title reign.
Chono would try to use the numbers game early on as Masa Saito jumped onto the apron in an attempt to distract Fujinami, but the champion managed to catch Chono’s leg, yet fail to lock on an STF as Chono scrambled to the ropes. With two men more renowned for their grappling game than the trading of hard strikes, the opening moments saw Chono keep Fujinami grounded with a side headlock before the Dragon slapped an armlock on the challenger, though neither man was completely dominant in these early exchanges.
Following each wrestler utilising a variation on the cross armbreaker and Chono grapevining the legs to put pressure on the knee joints, the two broke away twice in quick succession to allow them both to get back to their feet. This saw a quick burst of action as Fujinami targeted the legs with some strikes before Chono hit two low blows; one coming off the ropes after Fujinami missed a dropkick that could be described as inadvertent, before one that was from the Ric Flair school of low blows and clearly was meant to connect. Chono landed a Russian legsweep and would tie Fujinami up in a modified leglock as he began to work towards his STF submission. Some disdainful kicks only added to the pain the champion was feeling.
As the assault on the legs let up, a blocked Yakuza Kick saw Fujinami take Chono down with a dragon screw, transitioning straight into a figure four leglock in the centre of the ring. Fujinami would even take the risk of going to the top rope to drop a knee on Chono’s inner thigh before returning to the figure four. Chono would be slow to return to his feet, clearly feeling the attack on the leg, but Fujinami’s second high risk move led to Chono reversing the top rope kneedrop to the thigh straight into the STF. Luckily for the champion, he was next to the ropes for the quick break.
A second STF wasn’t successful in forcing the submission either and it would take a Chono chinbreaker to break a sleeperhold that threatened to end his challenge. It would eventually be the STF that made the difference, but only after Chono would Yakuza kick Fujinami three times, one in particular to the back of the head. Fujinami managed to crawl towards the ropes, only for the pain to be too much to handle and the submission to bring the contest to an end.
In total, Chono made no title defenses and only held the title for forty-four days. However, though he stakes his claim as being Mr G1 due to his success in that tournament, it would have felt wrong if Chono had never had the honour of holding the IWGP Title, even if only for a month. This may not have been the ascension to the top that it could have been, but it resulted in being a moment to recognise Chono’s importance to 90s New Japan and beyond.