Coming off what many considered to be a successful Global Tag League Tour, Pro Wrestling NOAH returned to the Niigata City Gymnasium, for The Great Voyage in Niigata. Fewer than just 1,200 would be in attendance to witness Takashi Sugiura attempt to claim his first title defence of his current reign against former GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion Atushi Kotoge.
For those unaware, Takashi Sugiura is the current GHC Heavyweight Champion in his 4th reign. Known for his wars with the likes of Minoru Suzuki and KENTA, Sugiura has become particularly notable for his stiff brutish style, which can leave some viewers unsettled. For this fight however it would be Kotoge who would be turning the stomachs of the audience, in pursuit of GHC gold. The challenger Atushi Kotoge is a former two-time GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion, who has only been an active heavyweight in NOAH since January of 2017, despite this he has been rapidly moving up the proverbial heavyweight adder. This would be Kotoge’s second bid to become GHC Heavyweight Champion having fallen to Katushiko Nakajima in June of last year.
Kotoge’s claim to a title matcht this time came at the The Great Voyage in Yokohama on March 11th, where he challenged Sugiura to a match after Sugiura had defeated Kenoh for the GHC Heavyweight title, that same night. Following this, on day 5 of the Global Tag League, Kotoge and Marufuji faced Sugiura and his protégé Kenoh in a first round match-up. In this instance, Kotoge would steal a victory for his team, after delivering a shoot head-butt, cracking open the skull of Sugiura. Kotoge would then present the benumbed face of Sugiura to the audience, parading NOAH’s merciless champion, who had been brought to his knees by one move; a shoot head-butt. Subsequently the shoot head-butt would become the principal story arc for their title match in Niigata.
To Niigata and as Kotoge paces down the ramp he seems confident, the thirty-two year-old knows he has the one move in his arsenal that will defeat Sugiura. He has no concern for his own well-being in this sense, no thought of those who have suffered the consequences of using the shoot head-butt. If using Purosesu’s most dangerous strike is what it takes to defeat Sugiura, that is what he will do. For Sugiura, ‘When Loves Comes to Town’ thunders through the speakers as normal, but from behind the curtain does not appear the warrior NOAH fans have become accustom to. Instead Sugiura looks anxious, almost afraid, perhaps not only because he may succumb to defeat so early in his reign, but because he knows all to well the damage that both men are about to inflict; for he has been here before.
The pink streamers fly for Kotoge who proceeds to square up and push his head against Sugiura’s in one last act of symbolism. As with most Sugiura title bouts, flair and thrills are put to one side for a methodically paced fight. They tease the head-butt spot early in the corner, but unlike many matches before, this is not received as Sugiura narrowly escaping disaster, he is simply prolonging the inevitable.
The match in some ways is reminiscent of the Kenoh bout. Kotoge has the skill and drive to be the victor, but Sugiura is simply too strong, too powerful. The action becomes as violent as any GHC main event: the elbows are stiff, the lariats are strong and every strike has slightly more malice behind it. Then, when Sugiura has Kotoge beat, everything takes an unnerving turn. Kotoge sees only one way to defeat Sugiura; uncontrolled violence. A sound not dissimilar to two bricks colliding rings through the arena, as the two men’s head crash together. Without hesitation Kotoge attempts a pin. This is his moment. But Sugiura kicks out; violence was not the answer.
Kotoge, however, does not give up, blood trickling down his face, he continues to bring the fight. Attack, after attack, after attack, but Sugiura will not stay down. Finally, the two men fall into a striking battle on the floor, and once again Sugiura is too powerful. Kotoge can feel the moment slipping away, and in one final pursuit for victory, he returns to the apex of violence. This time, not one, but two shoot head-butts. There is nothing more to be done, there is only so much blood that will run from the skull, only so much pain that can be endured. And yet, again Sugiura kicks out; violence is once again not the answer.
We’re at the point in the match where the two men involved have decided to take the match to a place that is too gruesome and violent for many. Kotoge takes to the top rope to deliver one final blow, he cannot keep Sugiura down, the use of extreme violence has disserted him. But Kotoge has let his guard down, and without warning he is met by Sugiura, who takes hold of him and delivers one final Olympic slam for the victory; and in this moment everything has become paradoxical. It was not a stiff elbow or shoot head-butt that defeated Kotoge, but his own mistake.
This match was not just a war between a champion and challenger, but an analogy for the increase in danger and violence within NOAH’s main event scene under Sugiura. As NOAH continues to battle with poor attendance figures, arguably Sugiura’s reign does not fill many with hope for the future. However, Kotoge’s ultra-violent strategy is not the solution to NOAH’s troubles. For NOAH not just to survive, but to thrive, perhaps violence is not the answer. Whoever is the one to defeat Sugiura and lead NOAH to salvation and back to the promise land that is the Budokan, will need more than just violence. They will require what allowed Misawa to captain NOAH to heights that never seemed achievable and what fueled the fire for Kobashi’s reign of excellence; they will require heart.