Should Jun Akiyama be in the Wrestling Observer Hall Of Fame?
The 2014 Wrestling Observer Hall Of Fame has been generating quite an amount of discussion in the last two weeks ever since the ballot was released. The big wrinkle to proceedings this year is the addition of a new rule which puts a number of candidates on the chopping block. Anyone who has been on the ballot for 15 years, will be removed if they cannot obtain at least a 50% vote in 2014 (60% is needed to be voted into the Hall). This is going to create an awful lot of competition particularly with well-supported candidates like Carlos Colon, the Rock & Roll Express and Dick Murdoch being among those facing the cut. Therefore it’s certainly reasonable to think that a candidate who is back on the ballot this year after having been on once before and getting less than 10%, would have a very hard time getting inducted. But it’s a candidate who fits that description that I wanted to talk about, and to me he is one of the strongest candidates on the ballot.
Jun Akiyama’s biggest problem as a candidate is that with a surface level approach to voting, he’s fairly easy to dismiss. That’s probably the main reason he dropped off in 2008. The narrative that he failed to be the successor to the “4 Pillars” of All Japan and was not able to become the major star in the 2000s has merit, but it’s also flawed in a lot of ways. Unfortunately with a surface level “eye test” that’s what people might point to. We’ll get back to that topic in a little bit but first I want to point to all the positives that you will find when digging deeper into Jun Akiyama as a candidate.
When Kurt Angle got into the Hall Of Fame in 2004 it was off the back of becoming an incredible worker in an absurdly short amount of time. He was a phenom, no doubt about it. Following much criticism that a wrestler shouldn’t be inducted after such a brief career, the criteria was changed to make the minimum age and number of years in the business both requirements. Many people said that a prodigy like Kurt had never been seen before. I would say that’s forgetting Jun Akiyama. Debuting in September 1992 after having been recruited by Giant Baba from amateur wrestling, Akiyama took to the business like a duck to water. Most wrestlers would kill to look as good after a year as he did in his first match. After four months, the rookie was called on to replace Jumbo Tsuruta in the finals of the Real World Tag League and he did an incredible job teaming with Akira Taue. By July 1993, 10 months in, he was a part of a Wrestling Observer five star match. The match was Misawa, Kobashi & Akiyama vs Kawada, Taue & Ogawa on July 2nd 1993. Now one could question the amount of credit he would get for the match’s quality considering some of the best wrestlers ever were involved, but you could also take that fact and admire that he was in there with guys that good and he was hanging with them! Plus Akiyama was an actively important ingredient in the story of the bout. He did great.
I feel that Akiyama gets, more or less, his due credit for his in-ring work when it comes to the rest of his All Japan run. Multiple five star matches followed as the 90s wore on and he was definitely one of the finest performers in the world. People do seem to acknowledge that as a whole when discussing his candidacy. However his in-ring work of the decade following that is extremely underrated. I can say with the benefit of rewatching a lot of stuff for Dave Ditch’s “Best Of Japan in the 2000s” project that Jun Akiyama was the best wrestler in the country for that decade. I used to think it was KENTA, but I really believe Akiyama did more in hindsight and I feel his work holds up better. Of course, this criteria is subjective, and if people were to have watched Akiyama’s 2000’s work in detail and say that they didn’t find it to be as good as that then fair enough. But I think it’s more a case of people just not being exposed to it (particularly later in the decade).
The Burning vs. Sterness feud which was a huge part of NOAH, produced a plethora of great tags and trios bouts of which Akiyama was a star performer, leading his team. Akiyama and Kobashi produced incredible singles bouts too with their 2004 Tokyo Dome main event being a candidate for Match Of The Decade. As guys like KENTA, Marufuji, Morishima and Sugiura became prominent players, Jun would go on to have great matches with them too. May 17th 2009 at Differ Ariake vs. KENTA, April 1st 2007 at Korakuen against Morishima & Yone and April 28th 2007 against Sugiura & Takayama were matches which really deserve eyeballs. Akiyama’s best performances weren’t only saved for his home company. In Zero 1, he teamed with Misawa for a huge dream match against Shinya Hashimoto & Yuji Nagata, and in New Japan he was the star performer of the 2003 G1 Climax where he put over Hiroyoshi Tenzan in an outstanding final. Akiyama became a master of the subtleties of pro wrestling, and his matches would tell some really great stories. He knows how to ramp up the intensity at the right moment and knows when to let things breathe.
In the last few years with his move back to All Japan, he’s working in almost a Tenryu-esque role. The tough old grizzled veteran who’s still capable of great matches. His work with the likes of Suwama, KAI, Go Shiozaki and even DDT youngsters Shigehiro Irie and Keisuke Ishii has been fantastic. One of the gems of 2014 was his match with fellow veteran Takao Omori which was a bout that young wrestlers worldwide should watch to see how to turn an athletic contest into a dramatic, engaging story. Perhaps most amazing about current Akiyama is how quick and energetic he is, even at 44 years of age. He has the aura of Tenryu and the movement of a junior heavyweight. His effort has been faultless in All Japan.
I mentioned the 2003 G1 appearance. This type of thing was not a rarity for Jun. Other promotions saw enough value in him that he was brought in for dream matches, tournaments and even title reigns on a regular basis. G1 closed with three straight Sumo Hall shows and they (and the rest of the tour) drew very well with Akiyama as the only big novelty on the cards (outside of the G1 gimmick itself). Without him, I don’t think that year’s tournament is nearly as successful or interesting. The Zero 1 tag mentioned previously was the main event of their debut show and the gimmick was that it was the biggest names in the business colliding for a dream match. Before he became a full timer again with them, All Japan used Jun for the 2011 Champion Carnival and gave him a run as Triple Crown champion which really helped the status of that title.
The 2004 Tokyo Dome show was a gigantic success built around Akiyama vs. Kobashi. It was NOAH’s first time running the famous venue, and they drew a claimed 58,000. When talking about Akiyama as a draw, I would point to this as his finest hour.
Now getting back to what we began with. Yes, Jun Akiyama was the guy expected to carry NOAH through the decade and keep pro wrestling at the heights established by Misawa, Kobashi and company. Did he do that? No. Without making any excuses for him, that simply did not happen.
For starters, the wrestling climate in Japan changed so much as the 90s ended and the 2000s began. The TV exposure had greatly decreased, and it just wasn’t as big a deal to the mainstream. Akiyama was taking the mantle at a considerably tougher time than his predecessors. He got a shot with the GHC Heavyweight Title (NOAH’s newly created top belt) in 2001 and drew a sellout (16,500 fans) in Budokan Hall for his title win over Misawa. His first big defence against Vader at the Ariake Colosseum was also a “Super No Vacancy” with 12,000 fans. The first Budokan of 2002 was another sellout although the main draw there was Kobashi’s return from injury (in a tag match which did feature Akiyama). The April sellout in Ariake against Yoshinari Ogawa was maybe the most impressive number of the reign considering Ogawa’s status as a midcarder. So he was really going along quite nicely as champion. But something absurd happened in the Ogawa match. Akiyama lost.
Why on earth they cut off his reign at this point is a mystery, and I think it really hurt Akiyama in the eyes of the fans. Ogawa was a Misawa buddy, so maybe that had something to do with it, but that’s really just speculation. Akiyama didn’t hold the title at all in 2003, but by mid-2004 heading into the Dome he had really recovered and seemed perfectly poised to take over from Kobashi who had put together an amazing title reign which got the promotion to about as high a level as they could get with their exposure at the time. But he lost again! And there was no coming back from that.
When he eventually got the title again in 2006, it was after 18 months of regression for NOAH and a Takeshi Rikio title reign which flopped hard after the company wrongly picked him to succeed Kobashi. Now he was no longer being looked at to carry a growing promotion onward and upward. He was being looked at to stop the bleeding.
So the main point in all of this was that I don’t think it was ever Akiyama’s performances (either in-ring or as a draw) which prevented him from becoming “the guy.” I think it was always bad decisions by NOAH. Here’s where it gets murky though. Akiyama from all accounts had a lot of involvement in NOAH booking throughout the decade. As far as I know it was less so in the early years, and he may not have had any say in the decisions to lose to Ogawa and Kobashi. Those seem like pretty high level calls, and Misawa was without doubt, the main boss. Regardless, when it comes to the Hall Of Fame, I’m judging Akiyama as a wrestler and not as a booker.
The criteria for the Hall Of Fame are as follows:
“A combination of drawing power, being a great in-ring performer or excelling in ones field in pro wrestling, as well as having historical significance in a positive manner. A candidate should either have something to offer in all three categories, or be someone so outstanding in one or two of those categories that they deserve inclusion.”
Akiyama’s case is strong when it comes to drawing power. Multiple Tokyo Dome’s with the 2004 main event built around him and a plethora of Budokan sellouts in All Japan and NOAH give him a healthy career as a draw.
I think my feelings on him as an in-ring performer are abundantly clear (I’d listen to arguments for him being a HOF’er on that alone!). He was a large part of the best wrestling in the world in the 90s and he was in my opinion the best in Japan in the 2000s (and he’s still great in 2014 in his mid 40s).
And finally I think he really contributed to the business in a positive manner and continues to do so with his admirable attempts at reviving All Japan after their disastrous run under the President Shiraishi. If you look at how those wrestlers are rallying around him and working so hard (he’s leading by example there) it’s clear that he’s very well respected by his peers.
So for me, he ticks all the boxes with the in-ring being the standout. He also has longevity with 22 years of great output under his belt and next to no interruption bar a few months’ time off in 2009 to heal physically and emotionally after the death of Misawa.
To me, Jun Akiyama is a clear Hall Of Famer. I hope that this column did a good job conveying the reasons why.