201 Non WWE Matches to See Before You Die #2: Mike Awesome vs. Masato Tanaka (One Night Stand)
The break is over girls and boys! I'm back after a day off and, to be frank, it's time to bring back the 201 Non WWE Matches series. What can I say, it's been too long. For this entry, we're going to take a look at a match that, if you want to get really, REALLY technical, might not be a non WWE match. After all, the even this match took place at was produced by WWE and featured WWE talent on the show. Why is it on here then? Well, that event in question is ECW One Night Stand 2005 (thus technically making it under the ECW banner) and this match in question features two talents who were signed with WWE. To me, that's enough to qualify it as a non WWE match, especially since I don't see anyone suggesting Wrestle Kingdom 9 was a GFW event. Thus, it counts in my book. What match am I talking about? Why none other than Mike Awesome vs. Masato Tanaka, one of the most brutal hardcore bouts I've ever seen and #200 in the list of Non WWE Matches to See Before You Die. Let's take a look.
201 Non WWE Matches to See Before You Die
ECW One Night Stand 6/12/05
Mike Awesome vs. Masato Tanaka
Mike Awesome: seventeen year veteran (1989-2006) who wrestled for Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW) and All Japan Pro Wrestling in Japan (duh), and WWE, WCW, ECW and TNA in the United States. Is most notable for being a two time ECW World Heavyweight Champion and for jumping to WCW during his second reign, breaching his contract and leading to one of the most brutal shoot speeches in wrestling history by Joey Styles at ECW One Night Stand. Is considered to be one of, if not the, best big men in the history of modern pro wrestling. Tragically committed suicide at the age 42, almost a year after retiring.
Masato Tanaka: fifteen year veteran (1993-present) who has wrestled for pretty much every major Japanese promotion ever. New Japan, All Japan, Pro Wrestling Noah, FMW, Pro Wrestling Zero One; you name the Japanese promotion, Tanaka has wrestled for them. Wrestled for ECW from 1998-2000, where he won the ECW World Heavyweight Championship once at the end of 1999. Continues to wrestle in Japan for Pro Wrestling Noah, where he and tag partner Takashi Sugiara have won the Global Tag League two consecutive years. Tanaka also still occasionally wrestles in the U.S., most notably defeating current WWE star Kevin Owens and indie legend Chris Hero on the same day last year. Not bad, not bad at all.
The Set Up
In the historical sense, Awesome vs. Tanaka had been destined for One Night Stand. The two feuded with each other pretty much their whole careers, starting in Japan and then working their way over to the U.S. when they both joined ECW. How often did they feud? Awesome won both of his ECW World titles in matches involving Tanaka, and Tanaka defeated Awesome to win his only ECW World title. This was the Austin-McMahon of hardcore wrestling in other words. Thus, it made all the sense in the world for these two to be booked together for One Night Stand, even though the main build up for the show had to do with a WWE invasion angle.
What Makes This Match Great
First and foremost, this match is as brutal as it gets. ECW may have put on more violent matches in its day, and as far as blood goes, this one doesn't even approach the mythical levels of Beulah McGillicutty vs. Bill Alfonso (the Blade Runner of bloody matches). But man, watching this back, I don't know if I've ever cringed or looked away as much as I did for this bout. The action never, and I mean never, lets up; what Awesome and Tanaka do in this match is the equivalent of Run Lola Run on a Mountain Dew kick. The chair shots are often and harder than the next. At least four tables are broken, with the wreckage of one them being used as a weapon. Tanaka at one point takes three straight chair shots and no sells them like Hulk Hogan. Awesome does things that no man 6'6, 290+ lbs should be able to do in the ring. If the match was merely all of that, aka a mindless action flick, it would stand up on its own anyway. Sometimes, innovative, bare bones, creative violence is enough to elevate a match, even if the psychology and story are nonexistent.
What takes this match to another level though is Awesome's real life story. Remember what I said about Joey Styles shooting on Awesome and his defection from ECW to WCW? That shoot takes place during the beginning of this match. Yes, even after five years had gone by, Awesome's betrayal of ECW had stuck to him more than Joey stuck to Chandler. For all of his ability, the way he handled the situation had left a mark on Awesome; fans never forgave him for it and, to put it bluntly, it appeared most people in the business hadn't either. It didn't help that his subsequent WCW and WWE runs mostly revolved around general indifference or such classic gimmicks like The 70's Guy and the Fat Chick Thrilla (yet, that was a thing). Make no mistake here people, Mike Awesome's legacy prior to this match wasn't that of one of the best big men ever, it was that of a man who screwed over the company that gave him his big break. In some respects, it probably still is.
It was because of all that history that this match, by accident, found its story. This match with Tanaka was Awesome's redemption, his penance for the sins he committed against ECW. Look at how things are when the match starts. The Hammerstein crowd, while not hostile to Awesome as they were to John Cena a year later, was downright frigid towards Awesome; I've seen Charlie Haas reactions better than the one Awesome got to start the match. And of course, Styles' rage towards Awesome is there for everyone to see, and the voice of ECW's shoot contains such likes as "he's a piece of crap", "he's a Judas" and most notably "it's a pity he didn't succeed in taking his own life" (a particularly brutal line, especially when you consider what happened to Awesome two years later). All of that combined to make this match about Awesome earning back the fans support by reminding everyone why he was such a big deal to begin with; his unbelievable ability.
And to put it bluntly, that's what he did. This isn't a shot at Tanaka, who plays his role very well and took his beating better than most wrestlers could (seriously, Tanaka is a world class seller). But this is all about Awesome. He's the one who hits not one, but two over the top rope suicide dives to the floor. He's the one swinging the chair like Kris Bryant swings the bat. Perhaps most impressively, he hits a top rope splash where he gets air time that some lucha libre stars can't get. And don't even get me started on the table spots. In short, this was Awesome's match, his time to shine. And the more he did, the more the crowd slowly started to turn to his side. By the end of the match, the fans had entirely warmed up to him; hell, even Styles was begrudgingly giving Awesome props.
Now I cannot say for sure whether this was all Paul Heyman's genius or happenstance. I doubt any of us will know if the mad scientist staged a wonderful redemption story for the disgraced Awesome, or if his real life issues with ECW conspired with an above average hardcore match to create something more. But either way, that story helps elevate this from a Transporter esq match into something of a poor man's The Road Warrior. Hell, you can still enjoy it on that lower level, as the match has enough hardcore wrestling, high flying spots and death defying moves (spoiler alert; Tanaka almost gets impaled at one point) to keep you satisfied. But if you're someone who likes the deeper stuff (and hey, a wrestling match should work on at least two levels to be great in my opinion), consider the arc of this match. At the beginning, Mike Awesome walked into his bout with Tanaka a pariah. By the end, he walked out with his respect and dignity returned, having reminded the world of what he was capable of. Who doesn't love that?
That'll do it guys! I'll be back later with another entry here, from this year's Wrestle Kingdom 9 event! Till then, pizza pizza!