wrestling / Video Reviews

Every Match Dave Meltzer Gave 5+ Stars To (2011-2014) Review

June 14, 2019 | Posted by Jake St-Pierre
John Cena CM Punk Money in the Bank
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Every Match Dave Meltzer Gave 5+ Stars To (2011-2014) Review  

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WWE Title: John Cena (c) vs. CM Punk
WWE Money in the Bank 2011.

Context has put this match into a very odd light. For me, and a lot of fans, this entire storyline was the last time WWE ever truly felt special. It was the last time I gave the company the benefit of the doubt to do something legitimately groundbreaking and innovative. I’m not talking their self-high-five over the fact that they stopped treating women like pieces of meat. They still do, by the way, but that’s not the point. I’m talking something that could have actually given fans something to invest in. And I say the last time, because WWE bungled this to such a colossal degree that it should not surprise you in any way that CM Punk left the wrestling business 2 and a half years later.

And it’s matches like this that make me miss CM Punk. For everything that can be said about his personality and conduct outside of the ring, he was unbelievable inside of it. He was a man who poured his heart into his craft, and it showed. While I’m a little partial to his best ROH work (his work in the first Summer of Punk especially against Aries and Strong, plus the obvious Joe trilogy), this was CM Punk’s magnum opus as a WWE wrestler.

This felt utterly enormous. Even knowing what went on to be after it, there’s a sense of gravity this match conveys that cannot be thrown away with time. It was an us vs. them battle between WWE and the fans, before that battle became all too common. It felt like everyone watching living vicariously through CM Punk on this night. It didn’t matter he was leaving with the belt. We weren’t watching because we loved the belt and what it stood for; it was Punk that mattered. And it’s all the credit in the world to both Punk and John Cena, because they wrestled this match like it was the biggest match they’d ever be involved in.

The bout itself wasn’t particularly deep or expansive. It was a title match between two main event wrestlers who had spent years wrestling the WWE style. But the thing about that is, the WWE style doesn’t necessarily make a match inferior. A great worker can manipulate a style to mesh with their strengths, and make something special. The entire latter half of John Cena’s career – up until probably 2016 or so – exhibits this. And for two wrestlers getting the most out of the style they worked under, there aren’t many better examples than this.

Rather than waste time with disingenuous limbwork or any blatant psychology, they laid this match out like a big fight or MMA match. Not with the moves obviously, but the way they slowly began taking risks as the action wore on. They looked for openings to take chances rather than force them, because both men knew how high the stakes were. The top prize of an entire company not only hanged in the balance, but could cease to exist depending on the participant who won. That sense of caution created the gravity this match excelled so much at fostering, and by the time the big nearfalls hit, it was all out war. It’s not rocket science, but it doesn’t have to be. Wrestling can be simple if you just let it. And I would be misinforming you if I didn’t mention how important the crowd was to creating the vacuum in which this match existed

So I don’t know how to grade this match, because it’s another one that time hasn’t been kind to. Not necessarily as it pertains to how the match was worked, but what came after it. The moves hold up. The counters and false finishes hold up. But its ultimate payoff ended in such profound disappointment that it’s kind of a bummer to watch, because I haven’t found this sort of innate excitement in WWE since and barring a change of regime, probably never will again. But as a match, this is top of the line for the company and I’m happy that it continues to impress me some 8 years later. ****3/4

ROH World Title: Davey Richards (c) vs. Michael Elgin
ROH Showdown in the Sun Day 2.

I remember the first time I ever watched this match. I had just barely begun reviewing wrestling, and had much less exposure to great wrestling than I do now. Fun fact, this was the main event of the second show I ever reviewed for 411Mania. No reason to insult yourself by looking at it, so let’s just take me at my word. I was a diehard Ring of Honor fan, living and dying by every move Kevin Steen made and lamenting The World’s Greatest Tag Team’s existence in the company. This bout’s finishing stretch had me on my feet out of my computer chair, undoubtedly looking like a complete knob, watching a torrent rip of this match in my grandmother’s house because I hadn’t left the house yet. It’s a sentimental memory of wrestling that still sticks with me, but I am very happy to report this match holds up incredibly well 7 years later.

I know his style was very polarizing at the time – especially as this title reign wore on – but when Davey Richards was on, there were very few men who could wrestle a more exciting match. Davey’s skillset largely relied upon his unbelievable motor, being able to wrestle a mile a minute and not only continue that pace for minutes on end, but do it with a believable intensity that kept the match grounded around all of its occasionally wacky selling. If you want a quintessential Davey Richards match, this one is the bout to track down.

And while the idea of praising the human embodiment of white trash that is Michael Elgin remains an undesirable prospect, it’s impossible to deny how goddamn good he was at this juncture of his career. He was so elite in the way he timed his big spots, and especially with how he could adapt with the style of any wrestler he faced. He could tear the house down like this with Davey Richards, but months on he went and wrestled a completely different five star match with Kevin Steen. The way he was able to work with Davey Richards’ faux-MMA style and mix it with his relentless power offense was so beautifully done. It was his coming-out party and it’s plain to see why.

I think the one knock people could have against this is the lack of psychology and while that rings true to a certain black-and-white extent, I think this was worked with a purpose and intensity that your usual deep storytelling affair couldn’t match. It was a fight between two elite athletes and when the action within that fight is so exciting, you can forgive the lack of tact. This was a stone cold classic for sure, and as a sentimental favorite of mine, I’m overjoyed that it held up beyond nostalgia. *****

IWGP Heavyweight Title: Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) vs. Minoru Suzuki
NJPW King of Pro Wrestling 2012.

This is every bit the technical masterpiece it was the first time I watched it, and in a lot of ways, it has only benefited in the near decade since. I cannot count many matches that incorporate something as simple as limb psychology, but also execute it in such a cerebral way. It wasn’t just “one guy works arm, other works leg” before a finishing sprint. It came down to which man’s strategy was better for the specific wrestler they were against, rather than something they were doing to fill time.

Was Minoru Suzuki’s work of the arm the best way to beat Tanahashi? Or was Tana’s working of the leg a more effective strategy against Suzuki? The storytelling in this match was personalized and nuanced, and it gave this match such a staunch identity because of that. Beyond the innovative limbwork, both men also implemented their styles smartly beside it. It was the slow, lumbering sadism of Minoru Suzuki vs. the quick, magnetic explosion of Hiroshi Tanahashi. That’s what helped give this match gravity and personality. Both men had debilitating injuries to their limbs, so they had to dig down deep and go with their fundamentals to see who could actually drag themselves to the finishing line.

It turned out that Tanahashi’s work had more lucratively paid off though, as he was able to string his signature moves together with the bum leg of the challenger. So while Suzuki did a number on Tanahashi’s arm, he wasn’t able to parlay that into a winning sequence; Tanahashi was. Tanahashi’s speed wasn’t taken away, and given it had been Suzuki’s worst enemy all match, it turned out to be his undoing due to a faulty strategy. Tanahashi was simply the smarter, better man on this night when it boils down to it.

The scary thing about this match’s quality is that – through this entire piece of word vomit about its positives – it’s been said without a single mention of perhaps the best piece of psychology of the whole thing; the fact that neither man even attempted a pinfall before the finish. They didn’t need a crutch of nearfalls. They didn’t kill time with useless one count pin attempts that no one believes. They stuck with their strategies and incorporated them so seamlessly that you don’t even realize the referee never hit the mat. That’s the most impressive storytelling of all. This match was so smart. It was so dense. These two men put it together with care, and that alone means it still remains one of the best matches in New Japan history. *****

IWGP Heavyweight Title: Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) vs. Kazuchika Okada
NJPW Invasion Attack 2013.

I have no desire to downgrade such a great matchup, so let’s just get the negative out of the way first; no, I didn’t find this to be a perfect match. It was damn close, but no cigar. I felt that it needed a little more ornate excitement and intensity to clear that bar, but even with that, I was absolutely floored by how well this match built. Absolutely, I can understand why this wasn’t a simple barnburner. This is a long, long term story these men are telling and it’s shortsighted of me to not see the forest through the trees. But in a vacuum, these men needed a little more oomph to cross that line into something legitimately special. But other than that? This match was pure technical mastery on pretty much all levels. There was a big fight feel to this match that you can’t really manufacture, and for these two men to justify it with such a masterpiece of psychology is an incredible credit to their talents.

It was a simple story. Kazuchika Okada has a deadly finisher that involves his arm, so Tanahashi attempted to keep his title by neutralizing the one move that has proven fatal to one of his title reigns. He made Okada take shortcuts, leading to less powerful moves and attacks, overall just reducing Okada’s quickness and explosiveness. It almost worked perfectly given Tanahashi frequently found himself the fresher of the two men… but once Okada hit that Rainmaker clean, it was curtains. And the best part is, Okada had already hit it earlier, but hadn’t had enough time to recover from Tanahashi’s work over his arm. He screamed in pain and collapsed after hitting his move, letting the champ recover just long enough to keep alive. But once he had the chance and the needed recuperative powers, he found his pocket and won the title in a flash. It gets over Okada’s champion-like heart, his mental agility, and perhaps most importantly the devastating power of the Rainmaker.

This ain’t rocket appliances, but it doesn’t have to be. Wrestling is at its best when it takes a simple narrative and turns it into something completely compelling. I think a lot of wrestling fans – and I’m not an exception to this case – sometimes don’t understand how powerful the simple things can be. While I don’t think this is an all-time great wrestling match, I do believe it to be an incredible one nonetheless and I’d urge you to familiarize yourself with this rivalry if by some chance you haven’t already. Especially if you’re following along in this review. ****1/2

Katsuyori Shibata vs. Tomohiro Ishii
NJPW G1 Climax 23 – Day 4.

This didn’t have enough depth for me to be able to put a perfect rating on it, but if you want to watch a human bowling ball beat the shit out of the baddest dude on the planet (assuming you haven’t seen Shibata’s MMA career and that is still believable), this match is going to make your week. There isn’t going to be any feeling out, headlocks, or hammerlocks. No one’s going to cry and make a valiant, vengeful dramatic effort for the good of all the women and children in this year of our Lord. These two insane Japanese dudes are just going to go out there, throw everything at each other, and the one man who manages to put the other down for three seconds is going to win. It’s bascially the Ron Swanson of wrestling matches, and it’s glorious. I recognize the brief analysis, but what can I really say that the match doesn’t? It’s two dudes killing each other, and it’s the best thing ever. That’s all you need to know. ****1/2

IWGP Heavyweight Title: Kazuchika Okada © vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
NJPW King of Pro Wrestling 2013.

After watching the two Okada/Tanahashi installments of 2013, one would probably start to understand why the rivalry has gotten such overwhelming acclaim. And while I have yet to see a five star match out of this tandem (hardly a complaint given the matches haven’t been far from it), I’d already be willing to call this an all-time great rivalry.

One of the things that took me a while to warm up to was the very gradual escalation in intensity between the two matches. This match was worked quite similarly to the April match in terms of story, so on the surface it seemed slightly anticlimactic. But then it clicked. Why on Earth would these two work a completely different match? It wouldn’t make sense. Tanahashi was so ridiculously close to beating Okada by destroying his arm that you’d have to wonder, why wouldn’t he try it again? Maybe he did his homework. After all, he is New Japan’s Ace and so why wouldn’t a well-laid plan work for him? It did against Minoru Suzuki, remember. No matter that Okada was able to weather that storm, and as such had a tentative blueprint on how to keep his title. Unfortunately for Tanahashi, his stubborness about Okada’s right arm ended up being his downfall for the second time in a row.

Okada knew that – just like the many matches before – all he had to do was hit that Rainmaker and he was home free… and hit that Rainmaker he did and home free he was. Which has to be disheartening in storyline for Tanahashi, who had some new tricks up his sleeve. He came out of the gate with a different strategy, attempting to “get his shit in” early in lieu of having a long dogfight with the champion. And when that failed, he resorted to faking an injury so he could both get some time to get his wits about him, and most importantly catch Okada offguard. And hey, it worked for a good while. He used that to really kickstart his momentum, going right after Okada’s arm like he did at Invasion Attack. And just like Invasion Attack, he had a lot of promising openings. Okada again had trouble locking in Red Ink, he couldn’t hit the Tombstone on command, and his first Rainmaker wasn’t followed up on because of the injury. Just like Invasion Attack. But again, Okada didn’t wilt because of the threat he knew the Rainmaker possessed. And on top of that, he was able to avoid a clean High Fly Flow, which may have spelled his doom after all of the punishment he took. And Tanahashi’s one mistake – getting caught up in a last furious exchange of counters rather than being a little more cerebral – meant he went home emptyhanded.

I won’t sit here and tell you that these two changed up their formula in any significant way. But I’m also not myopic enough to think that they needed to. It was a cohesive extension on the foundation their first match of the year laid, and while many of the callbacks were subtle, this chapter had an identity all its own. That’s one of the main reasons this rivalry is such a classic, and this wasn’t even their magnum opus. Not that they didn’t come magnificently close, though. ****3/4

Katsuyori Shibata vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
NJPW Destruction in Kobe.

Yet another storytelling masterpiece from Hiroshi Tanahashi, this time against a man who many thought would be his contemporary in NJPW forever. And you could tell immediately that Tanahashi wasn’t exactly happy with Shibata, given the perennial babyface Ace threw the first slap in an unclean break, setting the bar for the rest of the match. Instead of going through the feeling-out process, Tanahashi drew Shibata into what looked like muddy waters for the former, but Tanahashi’s work on Shibata’s leg wore him down enough to allow Tana to put the finishing touches on. It’s only bolstered by Tana knocking Shibata silly with his own corner dropkick. It’s tricky doing finishes like that (move thievery, et al) because you don’t want to make the guy the babyface is copying look like a jabroni. But ever the professional, Tanahashi did a great job throughout the match selling and picking spots for his comeback so he could logically keep Shibata strong before the humiliating conclusion.

He got utterly massacred through a lot of this match, taking shots you don’t normally see him take to the point where you sort of wondered why this worn-out man was getting the hell beat out of him so badly. It paid off in an incredible match of course, but some of the punishment he took in this match may make you cringe. But that’s the charm of a Shibata match. He’s not a shooter in the sense that he’ll lay with you on the ground and slightly wrench your leg because it looks more real than doing a Shooting Star Press. He just beats the living Jesus out of you, makes it look real, and has the psychology chops to back it up and make everything come together logically. He pops up from moves sure, but when he DOES sell, it makes everything so much more meaningful and adds to the narrative of the match. When you put that against a guy in Hiroshi Tanahashi who can eat away at your stamina with every move and back it up with an airtight strategy, a wonderful match abounds. There are few better examples of a good styles clash than this. ****3/4

10.0
The final score: review Virtually Perfect
The 411
It's all great. You don't need to read this. But in case you do, this is all great. The good thing about climbing through the years with these matches is that age becomes less and less of an issue, and I can finally put my brain back into the space it was when the matches themselves actually happened. It's a much different set of ideals than what I had during the 80s and 90s, and hopefully it show through the article. But yeah, get all this; especially the Suzuki vs. Tanahashi match.
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