By Liam Byrne @tvtimelimit
Yuji Nagata vs Keiji Muto
G1 Climax Final
When Yuji Nagata and Keiji Muto met in the G1 Climax final in 2001, they were equally on the up in their respective careers. Nagata was, with excellent in ring performances and clear passion for his work and the promotion, positioning himself as a viable contender to be the next IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Muto’s burst back into relevance, coupled with his new look, stable and moveset (with the forever copied Shining Wizard the move du jour throughout all of wrestling), was an amazing revitalisation of a character that had been floundering in New Japan before his time away. This was a chance to see which of Blue Justice or Puroresu Love was stronger, with the winner inevitably in line to meet Kazuyuki Fujita for the IWGP gold. This was also during a window of time where Antonio Inoki sought to promote a hybrid puro/MMA style that began to permeate its way throughout the card.
One of the main tenets of Nagata’s rise to prominence was the support of the fans, and it was testament to his popularity that the crowd in attendance for the final were completely behind him, even against a native and charismatic superstar such as Muto. The opening moments were tentative, with neither man wanting to make a mistake and let his opponent take control without a struggle. With both men known for working on the legs of their opponent, they each attempted to grab leglocks in the early exchanges on the mat, but with no real success. A body vice and chinlock by Nagata was the first extended hold applied with any conviction, but even then Muto fought against the clean application of the hold.
The match revolved around submission and counter work more significantly than a lot of Nagata and Muto’s matches had in the past arguably due to Inoki’s penchant for MMA. Early nods to mixed martial arts included a guillotine choke and body vice that Nagata used, a move that left Muto fleeing to the outside to sell the danger he had just been in. Even with a change in look, Muto still delivered a vicious snap elbow before slapping on a keylock on his grounded opponent. The conditioning of the fans to respond to ‘shoot’ moves saw them react to several Nagata knees to the side of Muto’s heads. Muto’s handspring elbow shortly afterwards would be blocked and Muto dropped into the Nagata Lock II.
Several kicks from Nagata would only lead to him getting sent to the canvas with a dragon screw, yet Nagata’s continued dominance on the mat saw Muto locked straight into a triangle choke. After finding the rope for the break, Muto would dropkick Nagata three times in a row as each man began to fill the strain of their opponent’s leg-focused attacks. A second dragon screw and a figure four leglock had Nagata wincing in pain, agony only furthered with a second rope basement dropkick to the knee, a third dragon screw and a second figure four. With the crowd willing him on, Nagata was able to make the ropes and stop the onslaught for a matter of seconds before another basement dropkick to the knee.
This time, a figure four attempt failed as Nagata kicked Muto on the side of the head and slapped on an ankle lock that forced Muto to crawl to the ropes to break the hold. A huracanrana belied Muto’s age and physical condition, but a cross arm breaker was reversed immediately into the Nagata Lock. Unable to force the submission this time, a spinkick in the corner would see Nagata collide with the turnbuckle and then get dropped with a top rope frankensteiner.
The finishing stretch had the fans on their feet as Nagata kicked out after the moonsault, avoided a shining wizard and folded Muto up like an accordion with a German suplex. The wrist clutch exploder should have been it, yet Muto popped up to nail the Shining Wizard to leave both men out. Some awkward looking spinkicks set up Nagata for another Shining Wizard, but he would block it this time. Seizing the opportunity, he sunk in the Nagata Lock II for the submission victory.
The match has a mixed response, as did a lot of the hybrid stuff that New Japan were aiming to promote. What couldn’t be argued about was the response the two men got down the finishing stretch, as well as that which greeted Nagata’s victory. You’d think Nagata was nailed on to be the next IWGP Champion by the end of the year.
Instead, he’d get KO’d by a kick to the head from Mirko Cro Cop in a legitimate MMA fight later in the year and have his rise to prominence curtailed until almost a year later when he finally won the IWGP Heavyweight Title significantly later than first expected. At least he made up for this awful booking with a title reign that usurped all that came before, so something good came of it.