There is power in brevity. There is power in tautness; in art where the fat’s been trimmed. That goes for prose, filmmaking, and most certainly pro wrestling.
I love a good 45-minute epic of a wrestling main event that feels like a three-act opera. At the same time, a tightly packed bout that lasts about as long an episode of Robot Chicken can be especially powerful. The in-ring story moves along quicker. There is less white space on the page. Urgency surgency through all of it.
To celebrate and examine some of the best of these matches, I partnered with @BeMcCooley, a great appreciator of efficient wrestling.
Together, we look back at 15 matches that did all their damage before the clock hit the 15-minute mark. It’s a journey that takes us to Fukuoka, to Winter Park, to the WCW entrance ramp, and to the ECW Arena. Join us as we take that trek with an admiring eye, in awe of what can be accomplished in such a short time.
Masakatsu Funaki vs. Tatsuo Nakano – UWF 7/24/89 (9:07)
One of wrestling’s legendarily rabid fanbases helped create an environment for the ages as they rallied behind Tatsuo Nakano with every ounce of their heart. UWF rules state knockout or submission only, no pinfalls.
The tough as nails Nakano squared up against the technical prodigy in Funaki and produced a fight that spits in the face of father time. None of their time is spent hitting the ropes or going to the floor but instead, these two lock eyes and assert their dominance.
The highlight of the match comes when Nakano attempts a dragon screw leg whip but Funaki plants his foot and delivers a palm strike which busts Nakano’s nose wide open. After Funaki locks in the knee bar it’s impossible to tell whether it’s blood or tears that are running down Nakano’s face. Smart money is on both.
Toshiaki Kawada vs. Akira Taue – AJPW 1/15/91 (11:41)
Before the two would eventually form the now legendary Holy Demon Army, Kawada and Taue spent years pitted against one another. The mutual respect of the fight is what brought them together which is put on full display here.
Kawada smashes Taue’s head between a chair and the railing, causing Taue to drip blood for the remainder of the match as he in turn begins to dismantle Kawada’s knee by driving it onto a table.
The desperation to tear each other apart is palpable and it sets these two apart; branding them both as extremely dangerous men. A theme which would follow suit for years to come.
Cactus Jack vs. Sting – WCW 6/20/92 (11:22)
Sting showed off his guts by taking on Cactus Jack in a match type the brawler was born for—Falls Count Anywhere.
Their fight began on the ramp, then moved to the cement, and to the stands; the ring itself mostly abandoned. It is a battle filled with urgency: each man keenly aware they were one big blow away from failure. Jack was at his best here, dog-fighting and risk-taking as we wore out Sting. The face-painted babyface, meanwhile, had to charge back with chair shots and heart.
There’s a poetic, circular motion to the match as it ended right where it began – Sting able to vanquish the wildman on the entrance ramp.
Nobuhiko Takada (c) vs. Shinya Hashimoto – NJPW 4/29/96 (12:53)
Takada, an outsider from UWF-I, held the revered IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and Hashimoto desperately wanted to snatch it from him to bring it back to it’s home promotion.
Quite often, this resembled an MMA fight as the two wrestlers remained cautions, defensive, coiled around each other like pythons. That best suited Takada, the man who once chased boxer Trevor Berbick from the ring with a barrage of kicks.
Hashimoto, though, battled back on that mat painted with blood spatter. Gutsy and overpowering, the big man rattled off mule kicks in the process of bowling over the champion.
A simple invader-vs-protector story powered this crisp bout. The roaring, hungry crowd amplified the tension. And Takada and Hashimoto made every impact feel momentous.
Shark Tsuchiya vs. Chigusa Nagayo – FMW 5/5/96 (13:20)
Street Fight isn’t the right term for this brutal match from Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling’s 7th anniversary show at Kawasaki Stadium. It would be more accurate to name it a horror movie of a match.
Just seconds in, Tsuchiya burns Nagayo’s body with a flaming stick. The violence only escalates from there as the adversaries choke, stab and torture each other. Nagayo spends the majority of the match covered in blood; her white shirt seeping with the stuff.
They used everything from a bullrope to a sickle in search of victory, but in the end it was Nagayo’s pure primal rage that decided things. She cranked Tsuchiya’s arm so hard and for so long that the referee had to stop the match and end this carnage.
Megumi Kudo and Combat Toyoda’s all-timer from the same show gets more attention, but this shorter bout is a visceral, unsettling piece of art all its own.
Rob Van Dam (c) vs. Jerry Lynn – ECW 9/17/99 (13:37)
Lynn entered this impromptu clash for RVD’s ECW World Television Championship with taped ribs and little chance. His grit and guts are the foundation for an expertly told story.
Van Dam dominated the injured babyface, leaving him desperate and bleeding. Even with medical officials questioning whether he was healthy enough to continue the fight, even with Van Dam getting help from steel chairs and his manager Bill Alfonso, Lynn nearly pulled off the impossible.
It’s those near-falls combined with the sympathy Lynn garners that makes this so great. It’s an epic condensed into 13-plus minutes.
Mike Awesome (c) vs. Masato Tanaka – ECW 11/7/99 (12:26)
A rivalry that embodies the mission of this column. I bet the majority of people who clicked the link expected this match to be listed. You can’t go wrong with any match between Awesome and Tanaka, but the ECW fans bring this one to another level.
They were more educated on what these guys bring to the…table…so the energy they brought added even more to the atmosphere this time around. These two are the poster boys for getting their moves in and here you saw everything from the roaring elbow into the chair to the Awesome Bomb through the table.
There’s no better bang for your buck than what we received from Awesome and Tanaka each and every time.
Genichiro Tenryu (c) vs Kensuke Sasaki – NJPW 1/4/00 (14:43)
Every day I’m thankful the computers showed us mercy on Y2K so that this match could happen. The ultimate dismantling of an invading legend.
WAR’s Tenryu walked into the Tokyo Dome as the IWGP Heavyweight Champion having defeated Keiji Mutoh less than a month prior and it was up to Sasaki to bring the title back home. Sasaki’s punches are shown to be more powerful than Tenryu’s signature jabs, he refuses to stay down when Tenryu hits Sasaki with his own finisher, the Northern Lights Bomb, and defiantly kicks out of Tenryu’s folding powerbomb.
Sasaki sent Tenryu packing with his tail between his legs to the point that he wouldn’t frequent the company for another four years.
Yoshihiro Takayama vs. KENTA – NOAH 6/27/2004 (10:21)
Start with the striking juxtaposition of KENTA outsized, looking up obstinately at the giant Takayama. Add the big man pawing at his foe like a bear. Add KENTA, fearless and defiant, fighting with every ounce of himself.
That’s the formula for a classic created in just over 10 minutes.
The semi-main event brimmed with physicality. Every strike felt like it could be the final one. Takayama doesn’t just hit KENTA, he wrecks him. At times, it not only feels like the head-kicking warrior has zero shot at winning, but that he might not even survive.
In a succinct showing, Takayama looks like a killer while KENTA looks like that action hero in the movies who refuses to stay down despite the broken glass in his skin and blood stuck to his clothes.
Takeshi Morishima (c) vs. Takeshi Rikio – NOAH 7/18/08 (13:24)
The story of Takeshi Rikio is that of the man who ended Kenta Kobashi’s legendary 735-day reign as GHC Heavyweight Champion and failed to live up to the standard Kobashi set. Nearly three years had passed before he received another shot at the title and this time it’d be against long-time tag team partner, Morishima.
There’s a long-standing belief that says tag partners become the best rivals. Years of watching each other first-hand and the respect you gain for one another through this person being your closest friend in the business factors together and brings the best out of Rikio in particular. Two guys who know each other’s struggles better than anyone else leads to Rikio doing his best to help Morishima not fall victim to what had taken him.
Absolutely zero finesse, just two dudes taking out their frustrations by ramming into each other as hard as humanly possible.
Shuji Ishikawa (c) vs GENTARO – DDT 6/19/11 (11:56)
Sometimes championship matches have these built-in grandiose stories and other times you’re just going out there to produce a banger. In fact, this wasn’t even the only time that the KO-D Openweight Championship was defended on this night. The story is as simple as they come: GENTARO wanted to recapture the title for the first time in close to a decade.
His plan was to channel his inner Riki Choshu by hitting all the Riki Lariats, suplexes off the top and wear down the knees before attempting the Sasori-gatame. In a moment of desperation, GENTARO tries for a Shooting Star Press but comes up empty and it leads to his downfall.
Soma Takao would challenge immediately after, leaving this match to be only a footnote but they nailed the adrenaline-fueled plucky underdog notes perfectly and sometimes that’s all you need.
Meiko Satomura vs. Yuzuki Aikawa – STARDOM 3/17/13 (13:37)
The stoic, ass-kicker Satomura clashed with the peppy Aikawa at Korakuen Hall in a show-stealer. You expect greatness like this from Big Match Meiko, but Aikawa didn’t excel nearly as often. This was a career performance for her, upping her game to thrive in a brutal back-and-forth with Satomura.
For a while, it seemed that this would be more of a beating than a contest. Satomura overwhelmed her opponent with kicks to every part of her body. She locked onto Aikawa like a predator with its prey between its teeth. But Aikawa pushed back with a wholehearted comeback attempt.
There is howling, nasty strikes and pissed off combatants in a match that moved along with a steady, thumping rhythm.
Tomohiro Ishii vs. Katsuyori Shibata – NJPW 8/4/13 (12:17)
One of the best G1 Climax matches ever didn’t need a dozen kickouts or a long build to a crescendo. Ishii and Shibata simply tore at each other.
From the second the bell rang, the wrestlers were a blur of frenzied forearms, elbows, and headbutts. Ishii and Shibata looked to stomp the other man out of existence. Shibata did his best to squeeze the air, the spit, the soul from Ishii’s frame. The Stone Pitbull was his usual relentless self in response, a human war hammer thudding against flesh.
Typically, the matches Dave Meltzer rates five stars push into the 30-minute, 40-minute, or more territory, but on this night in Osaka, Ishii and Shibata earned that honor in just a touch over a dozen minutes of action.
Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa – WWE 6/12/2016 (10:47)
During the Cruiserweight Classic, Gargano and Ciampa were still years from their famed rivalry at NXT. They were still tag partners, brothers, friends who just happened to collide in the first round of the tournament.
The respect-heavy contest you might have expected gave away in a hurry to something far more hard-hitting and intense. A nasty elbow from Ciampa that sent Gargano’s spit soaring into the air signaled the level of aggression of things to come. Ciampa’s focused attack on his partner’s head got uncomfortable at times.
Even Ciampa himself thought he might be going too far when he hesitated to finish off Gargano with a knee to the skull.
It’s impressive how much animosity and emotion these two jammed into this precursor for their 2018 feud. Consider this the novella version of the weighty in-ring novels they would later write.
Yuya Aoki (c) vs. Fuminori Abe – BJW 2/11/20 (13:54)
My favorite match of last year and it wasn’t particularly close.
What they produced in a much-maligned junior heavyweight division was nothing short of breathtaking and the performances catapulted Aoki to another level. Literally. The day his reign ended it was announced he’d be moving to the heavyweight division. You’ll be hard-pressed to find two wrestlers with more charisma than these two and their technical prowess is beyond their years.
At the time of the match, neither guy had aged beyond 25 years and the way they attacked the ring with such confidence provides comfort that the future of wrestling is in good hands.