Happy Wednesday Everyone!
We continue on from last week as we pick up the countdown of my Top 50 Favourite Wrestlers. I should reiterate here that this isn’t supposed to be an objective list on who I think the best wrestlers are but rather a subjective list of the wrestlers that I personally find entertaining for one reason or another.
For those of you who weren’t here last week, please check the archives to get yourself updated on the first 20 selections if you feel like doing so.
The Match: Vs Super Crazy, ECW on TNN (3rd December 1999)
Hidaka is someone I wish more people knew about because he’s genuinely fantastic and, outside of a few brief sojourns to companies like ECW and ROH, he never really broke into the western consciousness the same way other top Japanese Junior Heavyweights have over the years. On his day Hidaka is one of the very best wrestlers there is, with his ability to mix submission grappling and incredible high-flying being almost unparalleled. The two matches most western hardcore fans will have seen or be aware of when it comes to Hidaka would be his ECW TV match with Super Crazy and his match with Amazing Red on one of the early ROH shows.
Both matches mostly focus on Hidaka’s high-flying acumen, but it’s often forgotten that Hidaka spent a lot of time in places like BattlArts doing worked-shoot stuff and he was great at that. What’s so impressive about Hidaka amongst other things is his longevity, as he’s been doing this since the 90’s and he can still go, even though he’s slowed down a bit, thanks to his high level of technical wrestling ability. It’s a bit out of leftfield, but I kind of think of Hidaka these days the same way I think of 90’s Ricky Morton. Both were aging wrestlers whose best years were behind them, but they were still smart enough and good enough at what they did that they could still have great matches in right setting.
For Morton that right setting was in the south, usually in tag situations, where the fans didn’t care about his age and just enjoyed the fact he was good at his job. With Hidaka it’s working it on the mat for smaller Japanese companies in front of fans that appreciate that style and still get a kick out of seeing Hidaka get on the mat and school the younger generation. Even to this day I still enjoy watching Hidaka wrestle and a Hidaka match is something I actively look forward to. I regularly recommend Hidaka to people who like a mixture of high-flying and technical wrestling because I genuinely think more people should know about him and there’s a good chance that if you’re into that style of wrestling then you’ll love his work.
The Match: Vs Triple H, WWF Backlash (30th April 2000)
Yes for some The Rock will be far higher on their own personal lists and I totally get that. Heck, the fact he’s not #1 might lead to Scott Keith kicking me out on my backside and telling me never to darken his Blog’s doors again. However, anyone who has made this list is someone that I really enjoy, so the fact Rock isn’t up higher isn’t a knock on him. I may have vocally preferred the likes of Chris Jericho back in the early 00’s in an attempt to be my own man and not fall in line with the accepted norm, but rest assured I was a fan of Rock’s act, especially when he feuded with Triple H in 2000.
I still have the memory of staying up late to watch Channel 4 so that I could see Rock finally bring an end to Triple H’s Title run at Backlash. It was a moment of catharsis shared by a good chunk of the WWF’s fan base at the time and I was suitably jazzed to see Rock pick up the win, especially with the involvement of Stone Cold Steve Austin making it feel like a special occasion. I have to say it took me going back a few years after the fact to really appreciate just how good Rock was in the ring during his big run as the top babyface in 99 to 2000 whilst Austin was on the shelf. Very rarely did Rock stink out the joint on a pay per view, and in most cases he usually delivered at the very least a good match and sometimes a great one.
It helped that Rock was working with the likes of Triple H, Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit, Heels that were over and could have a good match with basically anyone at the drop of a hat. However, Rock’s great run of matches was not merely the case of a carry job by the WWF’s better workers. Rock held his own and was a truly dynamic performer in the ring, and that’s before we get to his charisma in promos and angles. Rock’s ability to send a crowd into raptures by merely raising an eyebrow is a testament to just how charismatic he was and how much presence and star power he possessed. It’s all the more impressive that he had such a rough start to his WWF career, because it makes the remarkably quick turnaround following his 97 Heel turn all the more impressive.
Rock had a mini-feud with Stone Cold in 1997 before moving onto a longer one with Ken Shamrock, which was really the feud that established Rock as a top star of the future due to the general decent quality of the matches and the opportunities it gave Rock to really develop his new insufferable Heel persona. By the autumn of 1998 the WWF fans were desperate for a Rock babyface turn and the WWF even teased it before yanking it away. The WWF was so hot at the time that they could do that to their fan base and get away with it, but Rock’s babyface turn was always going to happen and it eventually did in the spring of 1999.
Rock’s enduring legacy in some ways should be how seamlessly he filled the hole left by Stone Cold in 1999. Rock wasn’t treated as a placeholder by the fans until Austin came back. They bought fully into Rock as the top guy and business continued to surge unabated in 2000 despite Stone Cold’s absence through injury. Any doubt as to Rock’s star power and ability to carry the company can be put to rest with that alone, and even when Austin came back to the promotion Rock remained a huge star and the two had numerous highly dramatic and pulsating bouts with one another. Austin Vs Rock remains one of the WWF’s best feuds in my opinion, both for match quality and business.
It’s weird to think but Rock’s run as a regular main roster guy was pretty much over by 2001 when he went to make The Scorpion King, meaning he had less than three years on top as a Main Event level guy. However, he was such a big star during that period that his legacy will be remembered forever, and he even came back in 2012 and 2013 to win another WWE Title and draw two more monster buy rates, this time with John Cena. Rock had it all. He had the look, the promo, the charisma and the in-ring ability. In some ways it’s a shame his actual run as regular in the WWF was so brief, but that brevity also meant he was never around enough for us all to get bored of him, so it probably worked out well for him in the long run.
The Match: Vs Perry Saturn, WCW Fall Brawl (13th September 1998)
Whether it was as the exuberant Scotty Flamingo or the grungy Raven, Scott Levy has had a storied and interesting career in the world of wrestling, one that saw him wrestle for all the major “big three” companies during the Monday Night War. Levy also found himself as a major part of the early days of ROH when he released by WWE in 2003, before being the shot in the arm that helped turn NWA:TNA from being a disjointed show with some good wrestling that you could easily skip to being a show you actually needed to bother watching.
I don’t think it can be overstated just how much of a difference Levy made to those 2003 TNA shows when he showed up. The product felt like it had started to meander, but once Levy entered the TNA Asylum the promotion became laser focused on Levy’s quest (as Raven) for the NWA World Title, leading to some engrossing programming and a big match with Jeff Jarrett that led to a turn away crowd. Considering that TNA was actually having trouble getting people in the building for their shows, and this was after they’d already had to downgrade to a smaller venue, the fact Raven’s quest for the belt got so many in the door was a testament to just how good Levy was in the role.
Sadly TNA ended up botching the landing by having Jarrett retain his belt when it would have made far more sense for Raven to pick up the win, but Levy soon pivoted to a babyface role and a feud with Jim Mitchell, which continued to make the weekly shows engrossing viewing, especially when it was added to the already interesting run of AJ Styles on top as the NWA Champion. Prior to his TNA days though Levy had already walked into a smaller company and taken the bull by the horns. After years of playing wacky and cocky characters like Flamingo and Johnny Polo, Levy showing up in his jeans and jacket as the poetry spouting Raven in 1994 was a real shock to the system.
What was great was that ECW didn’t pretend that Levy’s career prior to this change in character hadn’t happened, they just presented it as a response to the career Levy had already had up to that point, with Joey Styles referencing that Levy had gone off the deep end. Levy “got” the character instantly and it wasn’t long until the multi-layered feud between Raven and Tommy Dreamer was producing some of the most exciting and dramatic storytelling in all of wrestling. What was so great about the feud was that it wasn’t just Raven and Dreamer that benefitted from it but a host of other characters too such as Stevie Richards, Beulah, The Bruiser Brothers, The Pitbulls, Cactus Jack and others.
Anyone could get dragged into the Raven/Dreamer drama, with wrestlers debuting as allies for either side in the dispute. The ECW audience was always kept on their toes and the most impressive part of the feud was that Dreamer never got to pin Raven or make him submit, yet with every failed attempt he not only remained over but almost got more over. Levy’s ability to get the generally too cool for school ECW crowd to legitimately hate Raven was incredibly impressive and a testament to how good a storyteller and worker Levy was. Levy had been working since the 80’s, so the Raven character wasn’t all sizzle and no steak. When it was time to work he could work.
I personally think Levy is one of the best storytellers from his era, with his matches having all kinds of peaks and valleys that played on fans’ emotions, be it near falls, swerves or big bumps when the occasion called for them. The Flock Finish™ is still a phrase used in some circles when discussing a match where a bunch of lackeys try to interfere to help someone like a Putty Patrol from the Power Rangers TV show. Levy used that particular trope to great effect both in ECW and WCW. Levy jumped to WCW in 1997 in pursuit of better money and bigger stage to perform on, and for the most part he did a good job getting himself over there even if the character and push he would receive would never reach the heights of his first run in ECW.
Levy had a number of good matches in that late 90’s WCW run with the likes of Chris Benoit, Diamond Dallas Page, Goldberg, Perry Saturn, Chris Jericho and others. The match with Goldberg was one of the better matches Goldberg had early in his career, whilst the feud with Saturn peaked in a great match at WCW’s Fall Brawl event in 1998, as Saturn managed to survive The Flock and eventually put Raven away with a Spicolli Driver following a tightly paced and thrilling near fall fest. Raven and Saturn even reconciled for a bit in 1999 and had some excellent tag matches with the likes of Kidman/Rey and Benoit/Malenko.
Scott Levy is one of those wrestlers who really should have reached a higher level than they did, but the glass ceiling in WCW was impenetrable and the WWF never really had much interest in actually pushing the Raven character outside of an enjoyable Hardcore Division run in 2001 where Levy had a superb match with Rhino at the Backlash 2001 pay per view event. Whether it was his work as Flamingo in WCW or as Raven in ECW, WCW, the WWF and other places, Levy was a multi-faceted and multi-talented performer who could, and perhaps should, have been a bigger star than he ended up being, especially when the Raven character was at its peak.
The FIGHT: Vs Don Frye, PRIDE Fighting Championship (23rd June 2002)
Yes I’ve gone with an actual real shoot fight as the match to watch for Takayama as opposed to a standard worked match, mainly because the wrestling career of Takayama really took off once the shoot took place, so I really don’t see how I could pick anything else. Takayama had actually been the bête noire for many an All Japan fan in the 90’s due to him being pretty awkward in the ring, leading to him having some less than savoury bouts. If you’d gone back in time and told those All Japan watchers that Takayama would not only be one of the biggest stars in all of Japanese Wrestling but he’d also be killing it in some hot matches they probably would have thought you’d lost your mind.
But Takayama did eventually reach superstardom and did indeed start having great matches with a varied list of opponents. Of course the likes of Misawa and Kobashi were amongst the names, but Takayama also tore it up with the likes of Takeshi’s Rikio and Morishima, as well as KENTA in a fantastic grizzled big man Vs spirited smaller youngster battle. The fight with Don Frye changed everything though. Takayama had started out in UWFi in the early 90’s, so he already had legitimate tough guy cred, but the fight with Frye highlighted just how tough he was, as he stood toe-to-toe with Frye and threw punches at him hockey style, a suicidal technique that all but guaranteed he would lose.
However, in standing there and getting cracked in the face until the referee stopped it for his own safety, Takayama became something the Japanese love, a brave warrior who went down swinging. Honestly sometimes I think losing can make you more popular than winning in Japan if it happens in the right circumstances, and the fight with Frye was definitely the right circumstances for Takayama. Following the fight New Japan brought Takayama into the G1 Climax in 2002 and booked him as the resident tank of the tournament, having him power his way through the opposition. Takayama rose to the challenge and had numerous good matches on route to finally getting stopped in the final by Masahiro Chono.
Takayama continued to be a pushed commodity in both New Japan and NOAH during this time, with Takayama getting to win both the GHC and IWGP Heavyweight belts at different stages during the run. When Takayama finally dropped the IWGP belt to Tenzan he challenged Kobashi at Budokan Hall in the spring of 2004 and they tore the house down in an incredible contest. Just as Takayama seemed to have the world in his hands he suffered a stroke following another hard hitting bout, this time with Kensuke Sasaki. Takayama would come back from that and would continue to work as freelancer in a number of different Japanese promotions, although he did eventually start toning it down a bit.
Takayama’s style was a mixture of stiff strikes and submission holds, with his Everest German Suplex being the main wrestling move he would deploy. So long as the opponent was willing to take a kicking, Takayama could normally have a good match with them, and he was always happy to absorb some punishment in return. What helped Takayama was that he had an undeniable charisma, especially when strolling down to the ramp and stepping over the top rope to get into the ring. Takayama just exuded toughness and that gave him an undeniable cool factor. You always felt like that was buried within him and he just needed something to flip a switch to get him going down that path, and the PRIDE fight was definitely the catalyst.
Sadly Takayama had to retire in 2017 due to a serious spinal injury that he suffered whilst doing a sunset flip of all things. After all the stiff strikes and throws he had absorbed over the years, it was a pinning move you see on almost every show that spelled the end of Takayama’s career. It shows how fleeting life can be and why we should appreciate those that bring us joy, because we never know when the end of a career can come. Takayama was one of the very best at being a believable fighter in a worked setting and he had incredible guts to swing at Don Frye like that. I wish him all the best and I truly hope that a day comes where something can be done to help him back to health, just so his general quality of life can be improved.
The Match: Vs Kenta Kobashi, NOAH Tokyo Dome (10th July 2004)
There are a few wrestlers who debuted in impressive fashion, but Jun Akiyama might be one of the most impressive of all. Granted Akiyama had the benefit of being able to work with Kenta Kobashi in his first match, but the former amateur wrestler showed a level of competence in the ring that few do for their very first official bout. It was thus no surprise then that as the 90’s wore on Akiyama’s growth and ability level grew ahead of schedule and by the end of the decade he was already one of the very best in the business, capable of tearing it up with all of All Japan’s top stars. Indeed, Akiyama was so good that the “All Japan Four” of Misawa, Kawada, Kobashi and Taue started getting called the “All Japan Five” by fans of Akiyama.
Akiyama really is smooth between the ropes, with his execution almost always being great and his personality shining through, whether he’s wrestling as a gutsy fighter or a brutal inflictor of pain. Akiyama spent the early to mid-90’s getting clobbered by the likes of Stan Hansen and Toshiaki Kawada in the traditional Japanese progression of paying your dues and learning to work. By the time he was allowed to start dishing it back he had an incredible arsenal of moves to call on such as the Exploder Suplex, the jumping high knee and the Blue Thunder Driver. Playing as Akiyama on a game like Virtual Pro Wrestling II is an absolute dream as he has some many great moves and you can snap off things like an Exploder any time.
Akiyama suffered a bit from stop-start booking in his career, including a time where he lost the GHC Heavyweight Title to Yoshinari Ogawa in a big upset but then didn’t get his revenge and NOAH kind of just forgot about it. The story of Akiyama getting over-confident and dropping the belt in a match he should have won only to get his head right and comeback to win it seemed to be a good arc they could have given him, but instead NOAH transitioned the belt to Takayama who then dropped it to Misawa and Akiyama didn’t get to win the GHC belt again until 2006. Akiyama did get to guest in G1 Climax in 2003 though and he had an impressive run to the final before ending up on the losing end to Hiroyoshi Tenzan in one of the greatest matches in G1 history.
Akiyama’s biggest match was possibly his Main Event clash with Kenta Kobashi in the summer of 2004 at the cavernous Tokyo Dome. It was the first time NOAH had ran The Dome and the match with Kobashi was a suitable way to close it, as Akiyama and Kobashi tore the house down in a fantastic contest. Many were bemused that Akiyama didn’t leave with Kobashi’s GHC belt when all was said and done, but the match itself was incredible and both wrestlers were able to add one more classic contest to their resumes.
Akiyama remains a highly respected figure in the wrestling world, with WWE inviting him to performance centre once whilst Eddie Kingston regularly states that Akiyama is his favourite wrestler. To anyone who was a fan of All Japan in the 90’s and NOAH in the 00’s, Jun Akiyama is widely regarded as one of the very best wrestlers of all-time. He finally made it into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame a few years back and it was rightly deserved based on his incredible back catalogue of excellent matches. Be it in tags or singles, Jun Akiyama almost always delivered, with him fully delivering on the promise he exhibited in that first match with Kobashi back in 1992.