(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Mike Awesome vs. Masato Tanaka – ECW Heatwave 1998
By Alex Podgorski on 5th November 2023
ECW wasn’t always known for putting on any great matches. Instead it was more about the environment, the aesthetic, the overall image the company wanted to cultivate: one of being an alternative. For several years they achieved that success, often by putting on the kinds of matches and showcasing the feuds bigger American companies shied away from. Eventually, ECW became an important piece of American wrestling history because it helped expose many wrestlers to a wider audience which would, in turn, help those wrestlers move on to larger stages.
It’s quite possible that, without ECW, larger wrestling audiences wouldn’t have ever seen Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mick Foley’s wildest characters and promos, Rey Mysterio, Eddy Guerrero, Chris Benoit, and a slew of others. And today we look at two more who, though they didn’t make it big on those aforementioned larger stages, still had their own impact on the wrestling business by putting on one of the most exciting and compact under-15-minute matches in modern times.
Previously I was writing for a site called TJR Wrestling and now this series is coming to Blog of Doom. For now you can check out the series in its entirety here.
These two have been rivals for years back in Japan where Tanaka made his name in Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW). In many ways FMW was the inspiration for ECW as it was built around notorious deathmatch icon Atsushi Onita and carved a niche in the tangled garden that was the 1990s Japanese wrestling scene.
In FMW, Awesome was known as The Gladiator and had a lopsided win record over Tanaka. While they traded wins back-and-forth in tag matches, Tanaka didn’t beat Awesome one-on-one until September 1997, years after they first started fighting.
Going into this match the score was 2-2 as Tanaka had beaten Awesome one month earlier an ECW house show. Tanaka had the momentum going into this but Awesome had the size advantage. Not only was he several inches taller and about 60 pounds heavier but he was incredibly agile for a man his size. He was like The Undertaker in terms of agility and that was putting it lightly so Tanaka couldn’t rely on speed to his advantage. Knowing this, could the much-smaller Tanaka somehow pull ahead and vanquish his larger foe?
This match originally took place on August 2, 1998. It was rated **** out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
They lock-up and Awesome powers Tanaka into a corner. Tanaka reverses a corner whip but Awesome bounces out with a diving back elbow for a one-count. A high-intensity crisscross ensues and then ends with Awesome catching Tanaka in a bearhug and landing an overhead belly-to-belly suplex. Tanaka sends Awesome onto the apron and charges but Awesome hits first with a slingshot shoulderblock followed by a running splash for a two-count. Awesome clothesline Tanaka to the floor and then hits an Undertaker-style suicide dive.
Awesome tosses Tanaka back into the ring and hits a diving clothesline for another two-count. Tanaka avoids a corner charge, swings for a lariat, misses, and eats a German suplex. But then he gets up instantly and counters a charging Awesome with a scoop powerslam. Tanaka throws Awesome onto the elevated entrance ramp and hits a triangle lariat. Then he grabs a chair, runs up the ramp, and hits a full=speed running chairshot to Awesome’s head.
Tanaka hits a missile dropkick but only manages another two-count. He charges again but Awesome picks him up and dumps him to ringside. Then both men grab chairs and start dueling. Someone call John Williams. Tanaka wins the exchange and sends Awesome into the barricade. Awesome throws Tanaka into the fans and then hits a springboard clothesline onto Tanaka. At 295 pounds this man is diving like the early ROH guys.
Back in the ring, Awesome lands a Ligerbomb but only gets a two-count. Then he hits a combination Alabamaslam/diving splash combo but only gets two once more so he grabs a chair…and cracks Tanaka in the skull. But Tanaka stays standing. A second chairshot drops Tanaka but he gets back up. He blocks a third chairshot and sends Awesome into the ropes. Awesome ducks a big boot and lands that third chairshot. One, two, thr – Tanaka survives. Running Awesome Bomb connects. Awesome realizes that’s not enough and hits a top-rope diving chair-shot. Then he teases an Awesome Bomb through a table setup at ringside. Tanaka escapes but runs into a boot and a lariat. Awesome tries again. Tanaka escapes once more and powerbombs Awesome through the table instead.
After some downtime, Tanaka heaves Awesome into the ring for a cover but Awesome kicks out at 2.9. Tanaka follows with a running elbow and then a Misawa-style rolling elbow. Awesome kicks out. Tanaka places two chairs near a corner and hits a tornado DDT onto them to get the pin and win the match!
Winner after 11:49: Masato Tanaka
For a random match in the middle of a card this was better than it had any right to be. Both Awesome and Tanaka treated this like it was the main-event and fought with so much fervor. They didn’t pull any punches. They whacked each other full force on many occasions. Both men threw caution to the wind and treated this as their only opportunity to leave a lasting impression in front of a big audience. The action was brutal, with the chairshots to Tanaka’s head being some of the most violent ever seen on TV or PPV. But he brushed them off like they were nothing, which makes one wonder what the hell Tanaka was/is made of (For what it’s worth, I saw Tanaka live in Toronto in July and, aside from being almost completely bald, he still wrestles the same despite being 50 years old).
To say this match fit the show would be an understatement. It was a chaotic hardcore fight yet it had an airtight flow to it that didn’t give it a sense of being over-choreographed. It felt like a series of in-the-moment decisions stapled together to create a brutal hardcore war that was more about surpassing limits than doing anything ridiculous. They still did a few things that some would consider excessive (did Tanaka have to have his brains scrambled that many times? Couldn’t ECW afford even a handful of mats to put ringside so that Awesome didn’t risk hitting his skull on concrete when he took that powerbomb?), but it never got to that point of excess blood or gore that would define later ECW rip-offs like CZW or XPW.
Final rating: ***3/4
This didn’t have the depth to be considered an all-time classic but it’s still one of the best matches to ever take place under the ECW banner. Most people assume that ECW focused solely on the grunge and ultraviolent carnage when in fact there were many wrestlers who came through that company simply to show off something different, no matter what it was. Awesome and Tanaka were two such wrestlers as they gave these fans a taste of what FMW had to offer.
Would a match like this happen today? Likely not, given how Tanaka survived several shots to the head and how Awesome took a nasty backward fall and almost hit his head on concrete. But that’s one of the odd charms of in-its-prime ECW: the wrestlers were so hell-bent on putting on a show and giving people their money’s worth that they didn’t always put safety and security at the forefront of match planning.
As a result, this short but memorable match more than earned the right to be revisited, especially for those that want to see two wrestling cavemen wailing on each other without a care in the world.