NJPW: Yuji Nagata vs. Josh Barnett (January 4, 2003)

I want to try to review all the Wrestle Kingdom main events while they’re free on New Japan World.

Barnett says something over the mic in Japanese while making a throat-cutting gesture. They start the match with a callback to Nagata’s MMA fight with Cro Cop by having him almost get immediately KO’d by a high kick (though not a very stiff one). He beats the count, though, and after a brief regrouping on the outside, he and Barnett engage in a shoot-style grappling battle.

The real story of this match for me is the crowd. I don’t know the story or build behind it, but they really don’t seem to buy Barnett as having a chance of taking Nagata’s IWGP title. Of the many submission attempts by both champion and challenger, the only one that really gets any sort of rise from the crowd is a cross-legged heel hook thing Barnett does. Even a really tight armbar, which has finished many a real fight, gets nothing.

Some of the head-dropping moves and stiff kicks get reactions, but they’re not really sustained. The biggest pops are for the two times it looks like Nagata might get knocked out (from the first head kick and a later jumping knee). The first one is likely because of the shock of it, and the second is because Nagata stays down until the count of eight (in a shoot fight, if the guy isn’t moving by the time the ref gets to, like, five, the match is stopped).

So Nagata counters a front choke by turning it into a wrist-clutch exploder (which is what beat him the year before). Then, after both guys fight to beat the count, Nagata lands a spinning heel kick to the head of Barnett and pins him. But Barnett kicks out right after the three and keeps trying to fight until the ref convinces him it’s over.

Winner – Yuji Nagata

Rating – Good

They tried really hard, but the crowd wasn’t biting. I don’t know what they could’ve done to get them to care. Have Josh heel it up with more taunting? Work a different style? Go back in time, have Josh debut as an undercard guy, and build him up to be a threat? Beats me. It was fun for what it was, though.

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