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Pro Wrestling NOAH: Brief Review of (Almost) Every N-1 Victory 2021 Match (Plus One)

N-1 VICTORY 2021
SEPTEMBER 12 – OCTOBER 3, 2021
WRESTLE UNIVERSE
RUNE CASWELL, PARTS UNKNOWN PRESS

In between work for the past while, I’ve been playing catch-up with the N-1 and thought that I might share my thoughts on it! This isn’t going to be a very detailed review and I ask you not to take any of my opinions as gospel or assume they’re how I feel about a certain wrestler entirely. I didn’t sit down to watch any of these live, nor did I give some of them my full attention. I just had a nice little time watching casually. I was originally not going to include any non-tournament matches, but since life made this take such a long time to get through, I’m also reviewing the winner’s title match as a bonus.

For a brief primer on the N-1 itself: it’s the current incarnation of NOAH’s traditional annual tournament league, dating back to the Global League in 2010. A win nets you 2 points, a draw gives you 1, and losing, of course, gives you none. This year, the N-1 is a four-block tournament. The blocks are as follows:

A Block – Takashi Sugiura, Keiji Muto, Kaito Kiyomiya and Manabu Soya.
B Block – Kenoh, Kendo Kashin, Daiki Inaba, and Masaaki Mochizuki.
C Block – Katsuhiko Nakajima, Kazushi Sakuraba, Masato Tanaka, and Kotaro Suzuki.
D Block – Masa Kitamiya, Kazuyuki Fujita, Masakatsu Funaki, and Akitoshi Saito.

And as always for anything to do with Pro Wrestling NOAH, I’d highly recommend checking out Hisame’s blog at puroprogramtranslations.blogspot.com for a more detailed summary of the events and translation of any promos and interviews. I can’t praise Hisame enough for helping to make NOAH more accessible to an English-speaking audience, and I wouldn’t have been able to get into the company without her work.

NIGHT 1
SEPTEMBER 12, 2021
TOKYO, JAPAN

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D Block: Kazuyuki Fujita [0] vs Masa Kitamiya [0]

Pretty slow and simple. Opened with some grappling and exchanges, the majority of the match worked around Kitamiya’s Prison Lock before Fujita escaped and overpowered him for the victory. There are some promising moments of “let’s beat the hell out of each other”, but it never hits second gear. It was the second match of the card, and it felt like it. Fujita won with his signature penalty kicks after 9:29. 5/10

B Block: Kenoh [0] vs. Kendo Kashin [0]

There is a lot of schtick to this match – as to be expected when Kashin is involved. I really liked this. There’s a lot of unique sequences – from countout work to limb selling to pure comedy – that I thought were amazing. Kenoh is a great straight man for Kashin and his reactions to all of Kendo’s horrible strategies are part of what make this so much fun. The opening stretch was too slow for my taste, but the last act of the match was entertaining. Kashin won with a roll-up after 12:46. 6/10

C Block: Katsuhiko Nakajima [0] vs. Masato Tanaka [0]

I didn’t pay enough attention to this match to feel comfortable rating it – not entirely their fault or anything, I have ADHD and this whole thing is just something I’m doing for fun. Sorry! According to Hisame, Tanaka won with the Sliding D after 14:08. UNRATED

A Block: Keiji Muto [0] vs. Takashi Sugiura [0]

Maybe this match felt different when watching it live. I saw a lot of praise for it when it happened. However, I really didn’t like it. Objectively it wasn’t terrible, but it was a really slow and uninteresting match that ended in a draw. There was a lot of mat wrestling and trading submissions, and it didn’t really make for an interesting match to watch back. My bias on Muto might have hurt my interest too, because this is exactly the kind of match I thought it would be and I was not excited for it. The match ended in a 30:00 draw. 3/10

NIGHT 2
SEPTEMBER 18, 2021
KAWASAKI, KANAGAWA, JAPAN

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D Block: Masakatsu Funaki [0] vs. Akitoshi Saito [0]

One of my favorite matches of the tournament. I’m a huge fan of shoot-style wrestling and Funaki in general, so I came in expecting to like this. I wasn’t sure about Saito, but he was better than I expected him to be – you can tell he’s busted, but if this is the last of what he has in the tank, it’s a good showing. Funaki’s swift submissions and transitions and Saito’s power and intensity are highlights. There’s great striking (Saito’s are pretty slow, but still) on display and Saito lands a few insane throws on Funaki that I would have never expected. Funaki used an armbar to get the victory after 12:53. 7/10

C Block: Kazushi Sakuraba [0] vs. Kotaro Suzuki [0]

A longer match, but an appreciated chance to cooldown after the previous one without losing interest. The mix of styles was fun, and there was a good taste of both shoot-style and high-flying in the action. I’m not crazy about it or anything, but I think this was a good match for its spot on the show. Sakuraba won with a modified armbar at 15:02. 6/10

B Block: Masaaki Mochizuki [0] vs. Daiki Inaba [0]

Would have preferred this to be shorter than it was (especially after the last match), but I liked what it had to offer. This was my first time seeing Inaba since he was hurt when I started watching, and I like what I saw from him. Mochizuki, as well, impressed with everything he can do with the miles he has on his body. I don’t feel strongly about this match. It was likeable, but I think that’s as far as it goes. Mochizuki won with a springboard sankaku-geri – triangle kick – at 12:39. 4/10

A Block: Manabu Soya [0] vs. Kaito Kiyomiya [0]

This was way too long for me. It was enjoyable but it felt like an eternity. I don’t think it was a bad match, but it was not for me at all. If you like long matches, this could be one that you enjoy a lot more than I did. However, that’s not my taste. Kiyomiya won with a tiger suplex after 25:07. 5/10 

NIGHT 3
SEPTEMBER 19, 2021
KAWASAKI, KANAGAWA, JAPAN

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D Block: Kazuyuki Fujita [2] vs. Akitoshi Saito [0]

I liked this match in the beginning and when it got closer to the end, but it got pretty sloppy around the middle. Both guys show their age at that point and it doesn’t make for great wrestling, unless that’s your sort of thing. However, the match when it started had some good (if slow, which is something I can appreciate) mat wrestling and jockeying for position, and the latter stages had some nice strikes and oh-my-god-so-many-headbutts. Fujita won with a seated front necklock at 13:12. 4/10

C Block: Kotaro Suzuki [0] vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima [0]

Another one that I thought was too slowly paced, but I generally liked it a lot otherwise. This is one that I think could be more fun when there’s not a whole tournament to worry about; I would love to see both these guys go at 100% with each other. Nakajima’s personality makes the pace a lot more tolerable for me, but Suzuki’s selling deserves as much praise. There were good sequences throughout this match and enough to where I would be glad I didn’t skip it, even if I couldn’t stay focused for the whole thing. Also, of course, every Nakajima kick that sounded like a gunshot raised the score. Nakajima won with the Vertical Spike at 18:31. 6/10

B Block: Daiki Inaba [0] vs. Kenoh [0]

I really liked the chain wrestling that opened this, and a pleasing strike sequence to follow it didn’t hurt, either. There were slow spots in this, but I enjoyed a lot of what either wrestler brought to the table. Kenoh hit the PFS to win after 14:59. 6/10

A Block: Keiji Muto [2] vs. Manabu Soya [0]

Muto bumped twice to open this, which has already shattered my expectations. Jokes aside, this was really more of what I do not like and what I’ve come to expect from Muto. There was some variation and it’s funny to hear him swear all the time, so I enjoyed this a bit more than his first match. The shining wizard/lariat sequence was fun, and I actually bought in to Soya winning after hitting the death valley driver and the lariat. Muto counters a sharpshooter straight into a figure-four at one point and it was impressively fluid. I’ll admit that I actually got invested in the last third or so of this match, but I also found myself hoping that each false finish was going to be it. Muto won with the figure-four after 17:37. 5/10

NIGHT 4
SEPTEMBER 20, 2021
KAWASAKI, KANAGAWA, JAPAN

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D Block: Masakatsu Funaki [2] vs. Masa Kitamiya [0]

Funaki and Kitamiya are two of my favorite wrestlers right now, and I was excited when I realized this match was going to happen. It delivered pretty much everything I wanted from it – a lot of shoot style grappling, striking, and brute force. Funaki’s one of the best at making you think he’s the smartest grappler around, which certainly feels earned. Kitamiya realizing he wouldn’t be able to outwrestle Funaki and shifting to using his strength to break him down was great – as well as was Funaki bringing in more kicks and chokes in return. Outside of one submission that slowed the pace down a lot, I really liked this one. In the end, Funaki won with a rear naked choke in 10:54. 7/10

C Block: Masato Tanaka [2] vs. Kazushi Sakuraba [2]

This was another time limit draw, but I thought it was leaps and bounds above Muto/Sugiura. The story told of Sakuraba outclassing Tanaka on the ground, taking him lightly because of it, and then having to ramp things back up when that allowed Tanaka to recover was fantastic and I loved how it built. Fantastic selling from both men. By the last stretch of the match, it felt like anything could be the end and both men knew it – trying frantically to win, but being too broken down to secure it. I had issues with it, though, that drag the rest of the match down. There was a portion of the match that saw Tanaka and Sakuraba exchanging submissions and not much else and it started to drag. The ending – which saw Sakuraba choking Tanaka out but Tanaka barely getting saved by the bell – didn’t work with the rest of the MMA influence on the match. The referee did the pro wrestling arm raises for Tanaka, when he was clearly out before the bell was called. It took a lot of the impact off of the match for me and was a really unsatisfying ending to something I loved otherwise. Time limit draw at 30:00. 7/10

B Block: Masaaki Mochizuki [2] vs. Kendo Kashin [2]

At first when Kazunari Murakami was out of this tournament, I was upset, but getting the change of pace that his replacement, Kendo Kashin, has provided has eased the pain so much. Kashin’s antics drove this whole match. Multiple attempted count out victories, roll-ups, a distraction involving a random ladder – there was so much to set this match apart from everything else. It was nowhere near the match of the night or anything, but it was a much appreciated breath of fresh air. Mochizuki won in 9:28 after reversing position in a small package. 5/10

A Block: Takashi Sugiura [1] vs. Kaito Kiyomiya [2]

Definitely my favorite match from either of these men so far in the tournament. This was another match that felt like an uphill battle from both sides. We’re officially into the section of the round robin where there’s no holding back, and I’m happy to say it. Sugiura looked like he was trying to cave Kiyomiya’s skull in with loud elbows and even cost himself the match at one point by letting go of a front necklock to land some more strikes. Driven as he was by the recent string of failures he’s been on, Kiyomiya gave all the energy he had and succeeded for it. It was a very strong story and I’m a sucker for stuff like that. However, some of the same issues I’ve had with other matches were in this one. Though Sugiura’s elbows kept some excitement going throughout the whole encounter, there were still slow points with little going on to capture my attention. I thought this was very solid. Not my favorite of the tournament, but my favorite from either Sugiura and Kiyomiya so far. Kiyomiya won after reversing the Olympic Slam into a roll-up in 20:58. 7/10.

NIGHT 5
SEPTEMBER 26, 2021
TOKYO, JAPAN

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D Block: Masa Kitamiya [0] vs. Akitoshi Saito [0]

I really liked the story of Saito repeatedly injuring Kitamiya’s arm just for Kitamiya to eventually get mad and start doing lariats anyway. It’s an interesting change of pace to see limbwork intentionally revolve around the wrestler deciding the pain was worth it and Kitamiya sells it very well. Each lariat looks like it’s agony for him, but it’s worse for Saito. Fun opener and a nice middle-of-the-road match. Kitamiya won with a Saito suplex in 7:54. 5/10

A Block: Takashi Sugiura [1] vs. Manabu Soya [0]

This match was insane. Sugiura and Soya spend the entire time suplexing and beating the everloving hell out of one another and it rules. There are quick counters, German suplexes into the turnbuckle, ungodly amounts of elbows, an insanely loud lariat, and it didn’t overstay its welcome. It lagged a bit at times, but it was a lot closer to my favorite pace in a match than most of the tournament has been. Sugiura won with a front necklock in 10:19. 7/10

B Block: Kendo Kashin [2] vs. Daiki Inaba [0]

Kendo Kashin is the master of the countout. This match was the first time in years that I’ve actually gotten excited and bit on near-countout finishes, and Kendo’s brilliance is a major part of that. He may not get as much credit as he deserves for being innovative and selling it so well because they’re goofy sequences, but I love it. Inaba deserves praise here too for being such a good foil to Kashin’s antics: trying to make the referee pay attention to Kendo, rushing him at the start to keep him from pulling any tricks, and eventually beating Kashin at his own game. His facial expressions and emotions were great, too. I’m going to give this match a high rating, because even though it’s not some must-see barn burner, Kendo and his opponents are making countout finishes lovable again. This match more than earns it. Inaba won by countout in 7:07. 8/10

C Block: Masato Tanaka [3] vs. Kotaro Suzuki [0]

Yeah, y’all, this one ruled too. I’m really starting to run out of things to say, because these matches are all more and more becoming exactly the same things I love. I can only praise guys getting their blocks knocked off so many different ways. And, yeah, that’s exactly what you get here. It’s a Tanaka match, though, you already knew that. Kotaro Suzuki’s strategy of going for quick pins and using his speed as a junior heavyweight to his advantage was a great counter to Tanaka’s… being Masato Tanaka. This was a brilliant quick match with some intense moments. Suzuki won in 5:26 by roll-up. 8/10

C Block: Katsuhiko Nakajima [2] vs. Kazushi Sakuraba [3]

This was another two of my favorites in NOAH going at it. There’s so much for me to love here. By this point, I’m sure it’s obvious how much I love striking and grappling in wrestling, and this match does a lot of both and it does them really well. I’m actually sitting here rewatching it now, having just finished it once. Great match with a great finish. Nakajima won in 12:33 with a deadlift Vertical Spike. 8/10

B Block: Kenoh [2] vs. Masaaki Mochizuki [4]

Yet another fun hard-hitting match. I’m actually starting to get a little worn out on these, but this was still a good watch. Highlights for me included the crazy slap exchange and Mochizuki countering the PFS by just punching Kenoh in the stomach on the way down. Kenoh won with a rear naked choke in 16:30. 6/10

D Block: Kazuyuki Fujita [4] vs. Masakatsu Funaki [4]

The match I was waiting for more than anything else in this tournament, and it gave me exactly what I wanted. This was a tense shoot-style match with little padding. It was also a fantastic breath of fresh air after the rush of good but similar long impactful matches. To me, good shoot-style wrestling involves the idea that positions can change, momentum can shift, and a match can end at any moment. Fujita and Funaki are (as they should be expected to be) two wrestlers who understand this. Both guys played to their strengths, and while I would have liked to see Fujita do a little more than he did, I’m very happy with what I got. Funaki won with a roundhouse kick to a kneeling Fujita in 5:05. 7/10

A Block: Keiji Muto [3] vs. Kaito Kiyomiya [4]

Well, it was better than the first Keiji Muto thirty minute time limit draw in this tournament. I thought this one was okay. Kaito is good and has the energy to counteract Muto. Still not a match I wanted to see thirty minutes of in the slightest, but it should say something that this was at least a fun background watch for me. Time limit draw after 30:00. 5/10.

NIGHT 6
OCTOBER 3, 2021
TOKYO, JAPAN

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N-1 Victory 2021 Semi-Final: Kaito Kiyomiya vs. Kenoh

I took a break between this show and the last, so I was refreshed and not quite as burnt out on the long matches for this. The first half or so of this match was really repetitive. There were a lot of strike exchanges that ended up feeling pretty same-y and threatened my attention as time went on. I kind of appreciated it for what it was, I think, especially with how good the last half was. Both guys were tired out, really messed up, and it felt like one good move could be the end for like, the entire last eight or so minutes. Kaito’s leg work on Kenoh was one of my favorite parts – especially with the spots where Kenoh couldn’t capitalize on the PFS and where he countered a low dropkick with a foot stomp. Kenoh won by countering an O’Connor roll in 15:35. 7/10

N-1 Victory 2021 Semi-Final: Katsuhiko Nakajima vs. Masakatsu Funaki

Masakatsu Funaki is the most believable wrestler active today. To go full wrestling nerd brain for a second – I completely buy into everything about him. He feels like the smartest wrestler alive, and every grappling exchange feels tense because I have no idea just how or when he’s going to take the advantage. For my money, he’s the best wrestler in the world right now on a fundamental level.

I pretty much say all that just to set up how I felt throughout this match. When I realized this was going to happen, I was excited to see how Nakajima and Funaki would mesh. Seeing Nakajima focused in and still getting outworked and taken out of his rhythm satisfied me. You really don’t appreciate good shoot-style until you see Funaki spin into three or four completely different submissions in a fifteen second span. After getting entirely outclassed on the ground, Nakajima eventually worked out Funaki’s timing, counter struck him, and knocked him out cold. I enjoyed this less than the other Funaki matches because it was less frantic, but I don’t think that would have fit the story nor can I think of any other criticism to give it. They told a good story in less than ten minutes – the hallmark of good pro wrestlers. Nakajima won with the Vertical Spike in 8:38. 8/10

N-1 Victory 2021 Final: Kenoh vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima

This match was solid, but a fairly long one that I had trouble focusing on in its entirety. It wasn’t my favorite match of the tournament, but it was far from a disappointing final. Both men represented Kongo in this match, and both carried damage from earlier in the night that factored in. This match has the best strike exchange of the tournament. Right up to the finish, they spend three whole minutes trading kicks with no pauses, then slaps, where Kenoh slowly broke down under Nakajima’s strikes. It was intense, didn’t feel formulaic, and actually had a purpose in the match, all things too many exchanges are missing. Nakajima won by pulling out the Diamond Bomb in 20 minutes. 7/10

GRAND SQUARE 2021
OCTOBER 10, 2021
OSAKA, JAPAN

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GHC Heavyweight Championship: Naomichi Marufuji (c) vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima

If you’re a fan of long matches, I think you’ll love this. It was absolutely far too long for my tastes, but what happened in it was very good. Seeing Nakajima fighting from underneath after hurting his arm and Marufuji resorting to underhanded tactics was fun. Nakajima slowly building back up and surviving Marufuji was a good story. I really (really) don’t think the match needed to be as long as it was to tell it, but I didn’t dislike it. Nakajima pinned Marufuji following a Vertical Spike to become the new GHC Heavyweight champion after 37:18. 7/10

VERDICT:

What a long process this has been! The N-1 was the first round robin tournament I’ve watched in full, and probably the last. Even though it was a huge commitment and I wasn’t really able to juggle working on this with my life for a while, I still had a great time. Outside of Muto/Sugiura, there’s not really a match that I regret watching. I started this review to motivate myself to actually watch this thing, and now I have! My definite MVP was Funaki, and my least favorite of the tournament was Muto – you’ve seen all I’ve said to this point, these should be unsurprising picks. I don’t think the general style of match in this tournament was my taste. That said, I still found a lot to love, and if you’re someone who does like a long match, the N-1 has plenty of great options.