Check out our 2016 All Japan Champion Carnival favorite match list.
These days, as a follower of pretty much all corners of Japanese wrestling, I often find myself with an extra soft spot for the “unloved” promotions that may not get the hype and coverage of New Japan. So when I saw that our FGB buddy John LaRocca was checking out pretty much everything from this year’s All Japan Champion Carnival, I got really excited and I approached him about doing somewhat of a collaboration piece with me.
We based it around our top five matches from what was a loaded tournament spanning April 9th to April 24th. It ended up showcasing a quality product based on hard work and determination, which overcame their own limitations. All Japan has lost a ton of talent in recent years through departures and injuries, but they pieced together a very interesting field for this year’s tournament, turning to young stars and journeyman indy workers who were eager to make an impact.
John LaRocca: About ten years ago, I lost interest in Japanese Wrestling. I used to watch everything – New Japan, NOAH, All Japan and even the smaller indies. What turned me off from Japanese wrestling was that a lot of Japanese wrestling became Americanized. What I loved about Japanese wrestling was that it was alternative to what I was already watching in the states.
Around 2010 or 2011, I started to get back into New Japan Pro Wrestling because of the great Hiroshi Tanahashi. During that time, I watched other Japanese promotions here and there, especially enjoying the work of Daisuke Sekimoto from Big Japan Pro Wrestling. But, I was never watched it consistently like I did in the 1990’s with tape trading. Recently, through Fight Game Blog, I got to know my buddy Alan who also writes for this site. Thanks to Garrett Gonzales, who runs this site, I even had a chance to meet Alan in person at a lunch get together for the site during WrestleMania 31 weekend.
Alan was so passionate about Japanese wrestling, especially about a lot of promotions I stopped watching. This passion drew my curiosity to check out the Japanese wrestling scene outside of New Japan again. Recently, I found that All Japan Pro Wrestling put up the entire Champion Carnival tournament from this year. The Champion Carnival was my favorite tournament in the 1990s. The tournament featured classic matches, great storytelling and set up future championship matches for the year. Though the crowds are a lot smaller, the 2016 version of the tournament was such a joy to watch.
What I enjoyed about this tournament was the back to basics of in-ring psychology and storytelling. There were a lot of really good matches and it was tough to pick a top 5.
Alan’s 5th favorite match
5) Naoya Nomura vs Jun Akiyama – April 23rd
One of the stories of the tour was the growth of rookie Naoya Nomura. The 22 year-old former Rugby player looks like a can’t miss prospect for the future and he stepped up to the plate in a high pressure situation. Traditionally, a wrestler this inexperienced would never be given a spot in the Carnival, but with injuries and departures, All Japan was forced to turn to their young up and comer. This tournament did him the world of good and he got better as it went on. His last match was indicative of that. Facing his boss/mentor Jun Akiyama, he was certainly going to be taught a lesson or two but he made sure to bring it to the legend as well and this was a much more competitive match than it would have been three months ago. One of the nearfalls towards the end made you think Naoya was done, but he kicked out provided for a great moment and a great reaction from the crowd.
John’s 5th favorite match
5) Jun Akiyama vs The Bodyguard – April 24th
Jun Akiyama is introduced, streamers fly in the air all over the wrestlers, and The Bodyguard jumps starts the match by clotheslining Akiyama. Fantastic opening! The time of the match was only 5:43, with The Bodyguard pinning Jun Akiyama clean with the lariat. The result for me was shocking, as I figured Akiyama, on the last night of the tournament would get the win. Not sure who is booking AJPW, but I understand Jun Akiyama is the big decision maker there, so his unselfishness of him putting guys over in this tournament was great to see. I have seen The Bodyguard in the past and he was horrible, but this guy has greatly improved. He and his tag team champion partner Zeus are in the running for my pick of the Wrestling Observer Most Improved Award for 2016.
Alan’s 4th favorite match
4) Kento Miyahara vs Super Tiger – April 18th
To fully appreciate this match, you need to have seen the Tiger/Akiyama match from Korakuen on opening night. In that match, Super Tiger KO’d Akiyama with a fierce kick and the match was called off instantly. It was a shocking moment to experience live. My feeling was that it was a work (a very well done work) to get over Tiger as a dangerous man for the rest of the tour. Here against the young champion and new ace of the company, the danger of Tiger’s strikes carried the match. Miyahara was tremendous in showing respect/concern for the weapons that his opponent brought to the table. Yet he never stopped looking for his own openings and eventually he was able to figure out the equation and get the win.
John’s 4th favorite match
4) Atsushi Aoki vs Yutaka Yoshie – April 17th
I loved this match. I would recommend young workers to watch it for perfect “big man vs little man” in-ring psychology. Many who have seen this tournament would suggest Aoki vs Zeus from the last night on April 24th in Osaka was better, but I greatly disagree. Aoki vs Zeus was really good, but you could tell right away the fans knew Zeus was going to win, even if they were going to enjoy Aoki’s strong effort. During Aoki vs Yoshie, the crowd knew Yoshie was going to win because of his size and also knew Aoki would put a strong effort. But as the match went on, the fans believed Aoki could win. That is what hooked me as well. I kept questioning myself, thinking that Aoki was going to pin the big man. On at least two of the nearfalls, I popped big as I thought Aoki nearly had the pin. The story of the match was that Aoki kept working on Yoshie’s knee. Today, a lot of workers will work on a body part and forget about it as they work their way to finish. Not here, as Aoki kept going back to it and these two told a beautiful story.
Alan’s 3rd favorite match
3) Daisuke Sekimoto vs Jun Akiyama – April 16th
As followers of my greatest wrestler ever blogs will know, I like these guys a lot. Heck, I think they’re both in the top 10 wrestlers of ALL TIME. So to say this was a dream match for me would be a vast understatement. Unfortunately their match was on the smallest show of the tour in a tiny building with hardly anyone in attendance. Did it matter to these two? No way. They wrestled as competitively as possible and in as much of a back and forth match as you’d expect from them on a huge show and with a title at stake. They showed exactly why they’re two of the best performers to ever lace up a pair of boots.
John’s 3rd favorite match
3) Jun Akiyama vs Naoya Nomura – April 23rd
As Aoki vs Yoshie was a match that all young workers should watch and study for big man vs little match in-ring psychology, Akiyama vs Nomura is one to study for veteran vs young star psychology. Akiyama played the big-dog-in-the-yard veteran here in this match. He punished the young gun Nomura over and over again. Nomura kept fighting and crowd kept getting behind him. Akiyama even put Nomura in a nasty looking Boston Crab, but Nomura escaped. Nomura made a great comeback, but Akiyama put him away with his exploder suplex. The look on his Akiyama’s face sealed it for me as one of my favorite matches of this tournament. It was a look of “I finally put away this pesky kid.” By the end of the match, Akiyama won, but the point was made that Nomura is a rising star in this company.
Alan’s 2nd favorite match
2) Daisuke Sekimoto vs Zeus – April 24th
In any tournament, you always look to the final to deliver as the marquee bout. No matter how good a tournament is, if it ends flat it will be disappointing. Conversely, a great final can make an average tournament very memorable. The Champion Carnival had a GREAT final. After both Sekimoto and Zeus came though exciting matches earlier in the night to qualify, the pair stood across from each other with looks on their faces that said they were going to leave it all in the ring. They certainly did. This was a bomb throwing, heavyweight slugfest of the highest order. Perhaps the best match of it’s kind this year. Zeus threw everything he had at Daisuke but the Big Japan star was too experienced and had just a bit more up his sleeve to outlast his opponent and win the Champion Carnival for the first time. As great as the match was, the post-match, which saw these two monsters trying to maneuver the gigantic trophy, was the best thing ever!
John’s 2nd favorite match
2) Kento Miyahara vs Daisuke Sekimoto – April 24th
This was the finals of Block A and it was fantastic. What made this match fantastic was that though it was a very important match, in reality, it was just a teaser for what was to come. Sekimoto won the Champion Carnival by defeating Block B winner Zeus in the finals in a very good match that nearly made my list (and was Alan’s 2nd favorite). The winner of the tournament challenges for AJPW’s big prize, the Triple Crown Championship on May 25th which is held by Miyahara. The action was back and forth with both men teasing what was to come in the future title match. In end, Sekimoto hit his German suplex for the pin. The finish didn’t go smoothly, but honestly, it added more realism to the match. After Sekimoto won the tournament, there was immediate anticipation for May 25th, when these two clash for the gold.
Alan’s 1st favorite match
1) Kengo Mashimo vs Kento Miyahara – April 9th
Okay, I’m slightly biased because I was there live, but I’ve watched this back on tape and it holds up. I remember walking from my hotel to Korakuen Hall on my second-to-last evening in Tokyo, going across the River Kanda as I had done on so many occasions that week and thinking to myself in giddy fashion, “Yup just strolling over the the Champion Carnival. That’s what I’m doing.” It may have been one of the coolest moments of my life and I will never forget that feeling. All Japan, and this tournament, may not be the prestigious thing that it was in the 90s, but I’ll be damned if the history and legacy still didn’t mean something to me. This match was the main event and it felt every bit a classic Champion Carnival match. They went 30 minutes and told an incredible story. Mashimo was out of this world as the cocky veteran finally getting the big spotlight that he KNEW should have been his, and Miyahara was the gutsy young champion, full of heart and fire. It was wonderful.
John’s 1st favorite match
1) Kengo Mashimo vs Kento Miyahara – April 9th
This match is easily a contender for 2016 Match Of The year and well worth you time to check out. Honestly, I have never followed the career of Mashimo, but after this match I plan on keeping up with his career. This was the biggest match of his career and he proved he belongs in the main events. They opened with brawling all over the building, but it was not so much that it took away from the match. This was done more to kill some time as they were doing a thirty minute broadway. Miyahara really put over Mashimo big time as Mashimo was in control most of the match. Miyahara needs to get credit for being one of the best workers out there in the art of the sell. His facials and body language make you feel his pain, like Ricky Morton or Rick Steamboat. As the match continued, the drama picked up and after thirty minutes of great storytelling and action, you were left with wanting more. When the Champion Carnival Tournament is booked correctly, the Triple Crown Champion comes out with many future challengers. This match here set up a Miyahara v Mashimo title match. When that happens, it will be a can’t miss showdown.