Wrestle Review Wednesday: In Which We Stan Masato Tanaka


Stay-at-home orders amid the spread of COVID-19 present an opportunity for self-betterment we wouldn’t otherwise have. Of course, what constitutes self-betterment lies in oneself’s own definition.

Me? I have worked diligently on jumping exercises in the hope of being able to dunk a basketball. I have also watched A LOT of wrestling; even more than usual.

These two otherwise unrelated quarantine pursuits meet at an intersection where Masato Tanaka resides.

For the unacquainted, or those in need of a refresher, Masato Tanaka gained popularity among ECW’s cult following in the late 1990s. Working in the edgy, low-budget promotion as part of its partnership with like-minded Japanese federation FMW, Tanaka’s hard-hitting wrestling and seeming disregard for his own safety ingratiated him to that audience.

Count me as part of the ECW audience and an immediate fan of Tanaka’s in 1999 when I had my first extensive exposure to either via TNN.

A quick aside and another requisite bit of background: TNN today is the Paramount Network, rebranding from Spike TV last year. Spike TV was the successor to The National Network, which in 2000 gained the broadcast rights to WWF Monday Night Raw; the XFL; and, quizzically, the inaugural NCAA Tournament play-in game.

Prior to its branding as The National Network, TNN was The Nashville Network — a low-rent forerunner to CMT. I don’t remember much about that incarnation in TNN, largely because as a hip-hop obsessed teenager, I wasn’t exactly in its target demographic. My knowledge of TNN prior to its brief run as ECW’s cable home was that it was Channel 38 on my local Cable-ONE plan, one above MTV and two below FOX Sports Arizona.

However, I clicked to No. 38 every Friday night for the duration of ECW’s sole year on TNN, 1999 to 2000.

Now, I didn’t exactly quote-unquote Go Out much on Fridays as a high schooler. As much as I’d like to blame mandated quarantines due to a pandemic for my pathetic social life, me being a spazzy doofus consumed with professional wrestling was the real culprit.

In 2020, I have friends in spite of these qualities.

Anyway, it was in this era that I first saw Masato Tanaka. ECW executive producer and owner Paul Heyman notoriously hated the TNN production crews, and the promotion ran into problems with TV broadcasts that necessitated Heyman airing full-length and/or extensive clip packages of pay-per-view matches.

One such instance was the 1998 Heat Wave bout between longtime rivals Tanaka and Mike Awesome. Arguably the best American match of ’98, I was utterly floored seeing it for the first time.

It doesn’t hold up especially well due to the number of chairshots to the head the two exchange. At the time, however, the hyper-aggressive realness to their fight stood out — even in a company like ECW that reveled in desensitizing its audience.

The Heat Wave match aired on TNN to promote the upcoming pay-per-view Anarchy Rulz, in which Tanaka was scheduled to challenge Taz for the ECW World Championship. I write “scheduled,” because on the night of the show — and in standard Paul Heyman-booked fashion — an impromptu three-way proceeded instead, with Mike Awesome inserting himself into the match.

The result was another classic with Awesome and Tanaka absolutely whaling on each other. Like Godzilla and Ghidora, Superman and Darkseid, Peter Griffin and Giant Chicken, these two were born for the sole purpose of wholly wrecking each other.

Awesome and Tanaka put on a few more outstanding bouts in late 1999, which I took in as a rail-thin teen of about 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4 and around 175 pounds. In those days, I was a finesse player more focused on 3-point shooting and distributing the ball, so my explosiveness around the rim was secondary.

On the right day, assuming I was properly hydrated, stretched well, and the barometric pressure was right, I could dunk. Needless to say, I never dunked in a game; but the ability to sometimes do so felt rewarding.

Fast forward to 2005 and College Aged Kyle was no longer a gaunt teenager with at-least-not-embarrassing jumping ability. Late-night burritos and keg beer gave me an added 60 pounds, and the idea of touching a rim felt laughable, say nothing of dunking.

2005 also marked an important milestone in the Masato Tanaka-Mike Awesome rivalry. WWE purchased the remnants of ECW in Spring 2001, and the company’s loyal following continued to chant “E-C-Dub!” for the subsequent four years.

Combined with the success of the 2004 DVD “The Rise & Fall of ECW,” WWE promoted an ECW reunion show. One Night Stand fell well short of its spiritual ancestor, save one match: Tanaka vs. Awesome.

Their encounter in 2005 lived up to the Heat Wave ’98 bout. It was also the first time in roughly five years I can remember seeing a Masato Tanaka match.

He returned to obscurity for me after that June night, before reemerging in New Japan Pro Wrestling another half-decade or so later.

Wrestling a style modified from that which he perfected in defunct ECW and FMW, relying much more on a physically imposing brand of grappling and striking than on weapons and plunder. Tanaka also wrestled at a significantly lighter weight, appearing in 2012 to go about 215 pounds. He was closer to 250 in his ECW days.

Gone were the wreckless chairshots, but Masato Tanaka remained every bit as exciting going up against Tomohiro Ishii and Yuji Nagata as he was opposite Mike Awesome.

But, because he is to my professional wrestling-watching life as the blue bioluminescence is to the Pacific, Masato Tanaka left again. He became a wrestler whose clips I’d see occasionally on Twitter and think, Man. He was excellent. 

Well, it turns out the was of that sentiment misses the mark.

During quarantine, I have introduced myself to Dramatic Dream-Team, a Japanese promotion with traits somewhat comparable to ECW in the ’90s. DDT isn’t nearly as reliant on desensitizing violence, but rather is noteworthy for its unique approach and cult-like following.

DDT has long showcased young and unknown stars, giving platforms to Kota Ibushi and Kenny Omega before they reached the mountaintop of wrestling. The current crop features similar talent destined for greatness like Konosuke Takeshita and Tetsuya Endo.

But DDT’s champion in 2020 is none other than Masato Tanaka.

Twenty-years after I first witnessed his work, Tanaka is still going strong. His King of DDT Openweight Championship bouts this year against HARASHIMA, MAO and Takeshita are all excellent.

Tanaka looks as physically fit as his much younger opponents, and he can keep pace with everything they do in the ring. And he’s 47 years old.

Retraining my body to be able to dunk is an arduous task, and I have plenty of excuses for failure, most notably age. But I’m more than a decade younger than Tanaka. If he can maintain the physical prowess of 1999 in 2020, well then dammit, I can too.

Self-betterment through wrestling.

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