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By Liam Byrne @tvtimelimit
Hulk Hogan vs Masahiro Chono 10/13/03
At the end of 2003, Hulk Hogan was at somewhat of a low ebb. A return in 2002 that had seen him take on the Rock in one of the most electrifying (pardon the pun) matches in wrestling history and then win the WWE Undisputed Title had ended with Vince McMahon terminating his contract at the end of the dated Mr America angle. With Hogan just turned fifty, he was still very much of the ‘have boots, will travel – for money’ mode of operation and found himself booked on the NJPW Ultimate Crush II show in Tokyo to take on Masahiro Chono.
For many fans of New Japan, this period wasn’t the most successful creatively as Inoki sought to merge his interest in wrestling and in mixed martial arts into one complete whole. Unsurprisingly, wrestling fans wanted more wrestling in their wrestling product, whilst mixed martial arts fans were unlikely to turn into New Japan for their MMA fix. Ultimate Crush II was an event that had both pro wrestling and shoot fights on it, turning the show overall into somewhat of a bloated mess. For the New Japan fan, the Hogan versus Chono match was booked in the semi-main spot, just after a raft of shoot and worked shoot fights had taken place, as if to once more rally the crowd for the wrestling action.
Very much Hulk now having eschewed the black and white for the yellow and red, yet still coming out to Jimi Hendrix, Hogan was hugely over with the Japanese crowd. As Chono watched impassively from the ring, Hogan took his time to milk the reaction with his usual posturing and posing. This was Hogan’s first time back in a New Japan ring in a little under a decade; he was going to make the most of it.
This was never going to be a match that was going to be about ‘workrate’ – these were two veterans who could work an engaging match around their limitations, long term injuries and age. Hogan landed an early Axe Bomber in the corner, receiving a respectful murmur of appreciation for a move that had claimed many victims in a Japanese ring over the years. Hogan seemed to be wrestling as a heel, with stomps, chokes and rakes the order of the day in the opening exchanges, yet the fans were never likely to boo him for it. A kick to the face sent Hogan rolling to the floor to halt any momentum Chono was aiming to build, the Hulkster taking his time to finally re-engage with his opponent.
A missed elbowdrop looked like it had given Chono a way into the contest, but the decision to head to the top was a bad one as he was pitched down to the canvas. Slipping behind an attempted Hogan bodyslam, Chono did manage to lock in a sleeperhold, one of the go to spots for later-era Hogan. Interestingly, Chono didn’t get close to wearing Hogan down enough to drop the arm and an attempted STF that followed was shrugged off. Further cementing his heelish ways, Hogan smashed a chair into Chono’s head as they briefly fought at ringside twice, with the second trip seeing Chono suplexed onto the protective mats and nailed with the Axe Bomber off of the apron in a spot that harkened back to New Japan-era Hogan of old.
Though the move was a legitimate match ender at one point, Hogan saw that Chono was going to beat the count and attacked Chono with his weightlifting belt instead. This only stoked the first in Chono, who finally gained a measure of revenge with a chairshot of his own and a belt-assisted choke. The same belt was used to whip Hogan as the match returned to the ring, an eventual set-up for two top rope shoulder tackles that earned Chono multiple two counts.
A brief tussle over an abdominal stretch would lead to Hogan ‘hulking up’ after a Russian leg sweep of all things and the crowd loved it. Hogan pointing at an opponent and saying ‘you’ translates into any culture it would seem. To the shock of the fans, Chono managed to kick out of the leg drop and avoid an Axe Bomber, even finding time to knock Jimmy Hart off of the apron. Another Hogan-trope out of context followed, as a Chono STF was released to allow the referee to drop Hogan’s arms to see if he was out. With Chono posing, Hogan naturally got up after the second drop and nailed him with the Axe Bomber for the win.
It is cliché to talk about Hogan in Japan as a superworker compared to what he offered in the US, but it definitely always showcased how smart he was in the ring. He knew what to do to get a reaction, and whether the embedded Hogan-isms that had to be shoehorned into a match even in the Tokyo Dome looked contextually odd or not, the fans absolutely loved every moment of it. As a match that effectively ended Hogan’s time wrestling for New Japan, it wasn’t a bad way to say goodbye.