Keiji Muto: A Goliath Retirement

Few wrestlers have had a retirement tour like Keiji Muto. Frankly, few wrestlers have deserved a retirement tour like Keiji Muto. The great ‘Pro Wrestling Genius’ has been a marvel for decades, starting with NJPW in the 1980s before gaining global fame a decade later in WCW.

Muto rose to prominence as one of New Japan’s ‘Three Musketeers’ after he dazzled fans with his Great Muta’s persona in WCW. He shocked by defecting to AJPW from NJPW in 2002, before going on to create more history as a simultaneous Triple Crown and IWGP Heavyweight Champion, and later as the founder of Wrestle-1.

Muto’s near four decades wrestling career hasn’t come without its hitches and controversy. His time in Pro-Wrestling NOAH has been particularly scrutinised, an ill-judged title reign and bloated matches being his hallmarks before embarking on his lengthy retirement tour. However, the retirement tour has felt different, this has been deserved.

Destination: vs Kaito Kiyomiya
This match felt like a turning point. After a drought of joy in Muto’s time in NOAH, he finally provided some. He lost to the young guy. He lost to the rising star. He lost to Kaito Kiyomiya.

In defeat Muto elevated NOAH’s ‘Supernova’, christening him with his legendary move, the Shining Wizard. This result was paramount. If Muto never gave the young star his moment to turn the tides on their feud, then the retirement tour would’ve been stained from the outset.

Instead, Muto did what needed to be done. The retirement tour’s success lived or died on the out-going Muto’s willingness to lay the groundwork for new stars. He had to fulfil the old pro-wrestling adage of putting someone over on your way out.

Money, money, money
Without a shadow of a doubt, Muto’s retirement has been a success financially. The tour has packed our arena after arena, all across Japan. Pro Wrestling NOAH has seen an uptick in its business as a result, something that cannot be ignored.

Put aside varying match quality, Muto’s retirement has done wonders for the promotion and its financial standings. The attendances have harkened back to the glory days of NOAH, where arenas once filled to see stars like Kenta Kobashi and Mitsuharu Misawa. Whether or not you stand as a fan of Muto or a critic, the drawing power he has is second to none. The retirement tour has pushed the promotion back into the very forefront of the Japanese wrestling conversation, and deservedly so.

Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks
After a DragonGate singles match on Ultimo Dragon’s 35th Anniversary show and a few tag matches, the retirement tour kicked into gear. 

It was a meeting of legends in October, Muto faced NJPW’s Hiroshi Tanahashi in an hectic tag team battle. The match will be best remembered for the poignant visual of Muto and Tanahashi sitting beside one another on the entrance way. Two wrestling legends side by side.

Then, the first signs of a problem occurred. Muto might’ve looked up at the lights against Kiyomiya, but he didn’t help elevate the Great O-Khan. At the Historic X-Over event, the Great Muta, Kazuchika Okada and Toru Yano defeated the United Empire trio of O-Khan, Jeff Cobb and Aaron Henare.

Credit: Pro Wrestling NOAH

It seemed like a natural progression that the Great Muta would add some prestige to one of NJPW’s rising stars, passing the torch like the Great Kabuki did to him. However, Muta sprayed his famous mist and eventually took the pinfall victory over the youthful O-Khan.

It seemed that Muto’s retirement tour was meandering at this point. Despite the positive of him losing to Kiyomiya, the nice sentiment of his DragonGate appearance and crowd pleasing multi-man tags, the train was beginning to stutter.

Green Mist Descending
However, the train got firmly back on track when the Great Muta persona took centre-stage of the tour. Headlining NOAH’s The New Year 2023 in Nippon Budokanm, Muta faced off against WWE’s Shinsuke Nakamura.

It was a historic match; Nakamura’s return to Japan and Muta’s final ever singles match. 

Nakamura being welcomed to the ring by a drum and violin was a beautiful spectacle. The match itself left a little to be desired, but as a moment that filled a building with energetic fans and ramped up the excitement for the final straight of Muto’s retirement tour, it was wholly effective. It was never the aim to be a “work-rate” classic.

Shinsuke Nakamura kissing Great Muta to take away the Green Mist was an unbelievable moment. one that will be remembered by all.

On the other hand, it wasn’t all kisses. The fact that Muta vs Nakamura bumped the GHC Heavyweight Championship match off the main event spot was contentious. Kenoh certainly had some choice words for Keiji Muto, but Kenoh and Kiyomiya managed to steal the show in their sensational semi-main event spot.

Great Muta’s final match came at the end of January when he teamed with AEW’s Darby Allin and Sting against Naomichi Marufuji, Hakushi and AKIRA. It was a match fitting of WWE-sized spectacle, but instead of it being something like Bray Wyatt’s light-up Mountain Dew mess at the Royal Rumble, it was more meaningful and symbolic.

The appearance of Muta’s former mentor Great Kabuki made for a great team photo alongside Sting and Darby Allin, as if they were a football team celebrating a league title win. Technically the match wasn’t that impressive, but again it wasn’t there for that. It was the spectacle that you would expect from Great Muta’s final match, filled with Green Mist, supernatural visuals and an array of body paint.

Remember to thank Jon Moxley for that match.

Final Love
Sandwiched in between the Great Muta’s final matches was a final NJPW appearance at Wrestle Kingdom 17 for Keiji Muto. The three-generational team of Muto, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shota Umino showed off a great representation of the past, present and future against a strong L.I.J trio.

This was a beautiful match, culminating in Shota Umino getting the pinfall victory. A wise choice, shining a light on another young star during Muto’s retirement soirée. Naïvely, I thought this meant Umino would be the endgame of Muto’s tour; the long series of matches ending with a budding, future ‘Ace’ having his hand raised in the Tokyo Dome.

Muto had other ideas, challenging Tetsuya Naito at the end of NJPW and NOAH’s joint Wrestle Kingdom 17 at Yokohama Arena. A headline worthy bout, pitting a legend against one of Japan’s finest and most popular wrestlers; it’s a sure-fire way of filling the Tokyo Dome for Muto’s final match.

I would’ve liked to see Muto using his final act to elevate a young talent, but choosing Naito as his opponent may prove a wise move. Not only is Naito’s history deeply entwined with his personal affection for Keiji Muto, the Stardust Genius name not simply a coincidence, but Naito is a safe pair of hands. He is someone who can carry the bulk of the match against a man whose health is coming into question.

I don’t doubt that Tetsuya Naito and Keiji Muto will deliver a solid Tokyo Dome main event, one that will send Muto into retirement without issue. Though, I can’t help but believing that there are other wrestlers who would’ve gained much more from the spot.

That has been a recurring theme of Muto’s retirement tour. Yes, Kaito Kiyomiya got his win back, but Great O-Khan fell to the wayside and none of NOAH’s other young prospects benefited from the exiting icon. It has been a somewhat missed opportunity.

On balance, Muto’s retirement tour has been a success. It has sold out arenas, put NOAH in the limelight and elevated Kiyomiya. But it could’ve done more. To the very end Muto has assured his own legacy before promoting that of others. Though, that might just be how you become a pro wrestling legend.