Back again, I’m taking a look at a long longtime fan favorite among puroresu followers. Otani really stood out in the 90’s, standing out in contrast to other Junior Heavyweight Wrestlers of the era, he being among the first to break out on his own as a “regular guy” among natives to the top level post-Liger era, ahead of his contemporaries Koji Kanemoto & Tatsuhito Takaiwa, no need for masks or overly flashy moves, Otani became known for his technique, hard hitting strikes, and just being a giant jerk in general. I’m really looking forward to this week as this is one of my early favorites.
Otani started off in the New Japan Dojo, similar to all of his future buddies as well as some of the future heavyweight legends like Nagata, Tenzan, Nakanishi, & Kojima under training from Animal Hamaguchi, and featuring additional training from Kensuke Sasaki, Hiroshi Hase, & one of his future best friends in Shinya Hashimoto. He had the look of a largely unassuming man, nevermind the flash & flair of the masked men like Jushin Liger & El Samurai, even compared to his other contemporaries that I mentioned earlier, Otani had little in the way of an eye grabbing look. But he made up for it with his great in-ring style and unique moveset for the era, after watching him wrestle and seeing him, you knew he wasn’t just some Japanese businessman, this guy was a badass. So let’s get into the match today as we see Young Lion Otani, taking on the great Eddy Guerrero (and future great Black Tiger about a month after this match, as he would take over the masked persona in NJPW then) from August 8th, 1993, just over a year after Otani’s debut!
Guerrero runs out from the back wearing a do-rag, tributing Rey Bucanero apparently. Otani comes sprinting out like he was just in the bathroom and heard his music play. Both men have the most 90’s puro theme music. Eddy offers a handshake here to which Otani offers the best sarcastic dick facial reaction ever. Young Lions are usually pretty good, but Otani was flat out prolific already, no doubt one of the best ever. I loved Eddy again going for the handshake and Otani kicking his hand away. They go back and forth early on going after each others’ limbs with each man getting advantages here and there, more Guerrero than anything. One thing I liked about this sequence was how uncooperative Otani was on the exchanges, getting Eddy at first to almost give Otani a noogie, then it finally builds to a great spot where Eddy just hits a double leg takedown and starts wailing on this young prick. Things cool down to the mat, and suddenly Eddy hit a straight Powerbomb, then a really unique grounded Cravate Hold Cradle which I legitimately haven’t seen outside of Eddy using it. Otani got control with Sleeper & Choke variations, even hit a Spinning Savate Kick at one point. This was mostly about Guerrero as he had the better gear and the better moves but Otani really shined here, even hitting the Ray Stevens “flip over the turnbuckle” spot at one point which is just fantastic. The one miscue comes with Otani slipping on a springboard to the outside but like a seasoned pro Otani just goes with it, landing on his feet and hitting a forearm and then he hits what would go on to become one of his signature moves throughout his career, the best Springboard Dropkick in history which he hit here and everyone should be happy to see. This really was a great match all around, 1 year in and his skills are on par with any Jr. in NJPW today. You could tell both of these guys were special right away. And the finish was just brilliant. Otani gets on a roll and goes up for a Top Rope Dropkick and Eddy casually moves out of the way, a decade before Samoa Joe popularize doing this and it was just as cool when he did it. Guerrero then set up for a Tilt-a-whirl Backbreaker that Otani countered into an attempted Satellite Sunset Pin, but Eddy held strong, locking in the Gory Special and bridging into a pin for the win, though Otani’s shoulder was up! Otani was robbed! So yeah, besides some fair sloppiness between two still green performers I thought this was an absolute treat to watch. And the cherry on top, the post-match. Eddy again looks for a handshake, and Otani gives the best “Screw you” reaction of walking away. Then Eddy runs at him and lays him down with a great forearm! I loved this so much and Otani was just the man. Especially for people new to NJPW 90’s Juniors, you’re gonna love this week. (though I’d also rec checking out my article on Kanemoto as well, as he actually became my favorite as time went on) Bottom line on all this is Otani had a great run as a Young Lion and this match is a good example that he was destined for great things.
Otani continued toiling as an undercard Junior wrestler for the next couple of years, but by 1995 fortunes started changing, winning multiple titles formerly associated with Gran Hamada’s UWA as well as some tournament success, most notably in the Super J Cup that year as he made an improvement over the previous years’ version as he stood out with his attitude and superb wrestling ability, gaining a win over Masaaki Mochizuki before losing to Ultimo Dragon which planted the seeds for today’s match, and heading into 1996 Otani was obviously getting primed to solidify himself as one of the premier Junior Heavyweights in the company after both his Super J Cup appearances as well as his excursion to WCW, and speaking of WCW Otani’s a great trivia note as he was the very first WCW Cruiserweight Champion in history, defeating Wild Pegasus in March before dropping it to Dean Malenko in the USA in May. In July a tournament was announced with the intention of unifying 8 largely smaller scale titles into a singular, more important title in the J-Crown. Otani again found himself opposite of the American known Ultimate Dragon in a tournament, the semi-final taking place for all 4 titles the two future legends held: The WAR International Junior Heavyweight Title, MPW British Commonwealth Junior Heavyweight Title, UWA World Junior Light Heavyweight Title, NWA World Welterweight Title from August 4th, in 1996.
This match has quite the reputation as a classic and lives up to it gracefully, in what was absolutely a highlight of both men’s careers. Considering who these two men are that’s a large statement that should turn some heads right away. Now when going back through time you go back and guys have singular moments of greatness, but Otani in ’96 makes a STRONG case for the best pure in-ring player in the world at this point along with Hijo del Santo & Negro Casas in México & the Four Pillars of AJPW and this is perhaps the defining match that totally justifies that statement. First of all, let’s get something very important out of the way: Otani had one of the best entrance jackets of all time, and his look as a whole was a great contrast to the bright pink of Ultimo. (Of note in Japan, pink has a much more masculine reputation, often relating to the color of death in some circles. Just to defend Ultimo’s fashion sense and future pink wearing badass, Atsushi Kotoge as well) Anyway, it’s hard for me to really break this down in a move for move sense as the things in between the moves were arguably more important. Just look at the grin Otani flashes when he escapes the La Magistral. The way he consistently gets more fired up over not being able to finish Dragon, Both men had elite speed not just in running but counters and reversals, Dragon brought his A game, take nothing away from him, but watching Otani was watching a master at work. This to me, and this isn’t hyperbole in the slightest, is unquestionably one of the greatest Jr. Heavyweight matches in NJPW history and an absolute must watch. You gotta love 90’s Otani.
By the late 90s Otani was rocking the house regularly, having his first (and only) IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title Reign briefly, but his main role at that point became like everyone else in the division based in a faction warfare-esque feud revolving around a “masked men vs. non masked wrestlers” dynamic, largely centered around 6 men in particular, Otani’s team with Koji Kanemoto & Tatsuhito Takaiwa and the masked group of Jushin Liger, El Samurai, & Kendo Kashin. These guys all went against each other for years in various forms, and their rivalry and excellent matches in both tag and trios format directly led to the creation of the IWGP Jr Heavyweight Tag Titles of which Otani & Takaiwa were the first ever champions of. For this match they were champions again, after ending the reign of Jushin Liger & Great Sasuke, Liger comes back here with a familiar friend and longtime partner in El Samurai to dish out some payback to Otani & Takaiwa, who at this point were re-writing the book on what it meant to be a truly great tag team, and the team is still fondly remembered today. Check out one of their finer matches in a special venue no less! The team once referred to as being apart of Koji Kanemoto’s Army of gays by Jushin Liger, Otani & Takaiwa take on Liger & El Samurai, perhaps the high point of these guys’ rivalry, from August 28th, 1999.
First of all the outdoor venue is a great touch, Meiji Jingu Stadium was a great place to run and although I have a lot of problems with modern day NJPW I’d love to see a company get big enough to run it again. Liger poses with a baby in the crowd on his entrance who starts crying (Otani fan). Otani & Takaiwa get a boss entrance with babes and streamer cannons. All 4 men get pretty good reactions but the masked men bumrush the champs and bust out some cool Double Teams on Otani still in his ace jacket including a Doomsday Device nearly right away, and Samurai ends up taking off the jacket and throwing it at him. NO! When Otani & Takaiwa get the advantage with one of my favorite spots of theirs Otani gets a hero’s welcome for it. I don’t know when Liger & Samurai turned into the Midnight Express but they work an awesome classic heel tag team template with all the tropes that makes that style and a ton of cool moves. The crowd’s hot for the unmasked duo in the stadium. and a highlight comes after Takaiwa does what he does best: Throw bombs, Liger breaks up the pin and with perfect timing Otani comes flying in with his incredible Springboard Missle Dropkick on Liger. Everyone in this match plays their role perfectly and I also love how they both feel like true teams. Every tag team today could watch this match and take something from the way these guys work. The finishing run comes along with Liger in the ring alone and Otani & Takaiwa hit a double team flurry that finishes with a really cool Spiral Bomb on Liger. The champs retain outdoors! As mentioned this was a tag team clinic all around and just another example of how amazing NJPW’s Junior division was in terms of talent and depth in the 90s. You’d think that they could have built on that standard for years to come. But some people in NJPW had other plans for Mr. Otani’s future…
By the time everything had been done in the Jr. Division for Otani, his team with Takaiwa losing their big title reign in June 2000 to the team of the Jr. Stars, as well as Riki Choshu’s insistence on downgrading the Jr. Heavyweight Division saw Otani question the company’s plans, though he was gaining weight on his own, he took several months off at the end of 2000, returning in January 4th, 2001 to NJPW newly christened as a Heavyweight, teaming with main eventer Keiji Muto and a month later receiving an IWGP Heavyweight Title shot against beloved Riki Choshu protege Kensuke Sasaki. In fact that would be his swan song in the company he made his name for originally. As with his situation as well as his friend Shinya Hashimoto’s, Otani joined together with Hashimoto to start a new venture, taking on the long proposed Pro Wrestling ZERO plan that Hashimoto and NJPW had talked about, and tweaking it for copyright purposes I’m sure but also to denote the year of their creation, and Pro Wrestling Zero-One was born! Otani was immediately put into a prominent position within the first few months of the company’s existence, while Hashimoto largely took part in dream matches, Otani helped carry the company representing Zero1, winning the NWA Intercontinental Tag Team Titles on back to back occasions, as well as winning Zero1’s most prestigious tournament, the Fire Festival in its’ first two incarnations with dramatic wins over a green Kohei Sato & FMW veteran Tetsuhiro Kuroda. The only thing that had ever escaped him going into 2003, the cherry on top, is a major World Title, of which he had yet to receive a shot for even in his home promotion. (Zero1 having no World Title at this point likely played a minor role in this) But he got his chance in 2003, being the Zero1 representative in a mini-tournament for the All Japan Triple Crown Title. He did well, scoring an upset win over the perceived next ace of All Japan, Satoshi Kojima and advancing to a Triple Crown Final for this match here. The Triple Crown decision match vs. Toshiaki Kawada from September 6th, 2003.
Now the buildup to this is earlier on this night Kawada ran through The Gladiator in under 4 minutes while Otani had a grueling near 20 minute match against Kojima, so Otani, already an underdog anyway, becomes even moreso now. This is a match 5 years prior and they wrestled the style they did here, it would have been a lock to be one of the best matches of the year, if not the decade. But Kawada was slowly aging and it’s been and probably always will be a talking point of Otani’s career. His move to Heavyweight was not kind to him in terms of his great match quotient and was ill-conceived. But still, it just says more about Otani’s greatness that a steep drop for him resulted in him going from “Maybe the best in the world” to just “very good”. That said, it really is a shame this epic matchup couldn’t come together sooner as the signs of what I said above were certainly there. Maybe it wasn’t the Heavyweight jump that led to Otani’s downgrade, but his strange orange hair color that played a bigger role. An underexplored theory for sure. The match starts off with Gladiator running in and yelling about how he has no damage and this is garbage. Kawada, in the most Kawada moment in history, simply kicks him in the face and begins to walk away before Gladiator comes him and attacks him, with a focus on injuring K’s leg. Surprise, the injured leg plays a big role in this, with Otani viciously heeling on him to boos from the AJPW crowd. A great moment happens after an Olé Kick when Kawada pops up and they have the strike exchange we all wanted in this matchup. Kawada breaks out some cool stuff including his vicious half crab and a Bow and Arrow Lock that was flat out nifty. There was your recommended dose of stiffness and Kawada’s brand of fighting spirit blended together really well with Otani’s big moves. This was damn good. The last probably 2 minutes I thought were really incredible with Otani’s spirit was at epic levels, The bad news is the finish itself was as flat as possible and a real let down. Personally I would have tried to win with the Brainbuster as a shot to Zero1 and Hashimoto who they were in the middle of a rivalry and Hashimoto’s the one who vacated the TC due to injury. But either way, this battle between these two legends stands out as one of Otani’s highest profile matches in his career.
The other thing that Otani’s Zero1 run was known for his prolific team as a heavyweight and the namesake for this article, Emblem, featuring Otani and his longtime friend, tag partner, and Zero1 loyalist Masato Tanaka. Their team was and is without a doubt the most prolific in company history, starting under a year after Zero1’s debut and going through periods of inactivity later on, but are still back rocking strong today, though their big run was through the first 5 or so years, and that’s where this match comes from, as Emblem try to become three time NWA Intercontinental Tag Team Champions, taking on arguably the best tag team going at the time, Ikuto Hidaka & Minoru Fujita that also happen to be teaming today, Ikuto Hidaka & Minoru Fujita! From November 23rd, 2005.
We see a hype video for Hidaka & Fujita’s recent winning ways and Otani & Tanaka looking to take the titles. I’ve always thought Emblem had one of the best “combined themes” in wrestling. Dangan and Believe S Road go so well together. Also liked the pose-off after Hidaka & Fujita made their entrance at the same time. The crowd were clearly into Hidaka and despite being a Junior really seemed to buy in to him as a big deal. Emblem wrestle some classic heel tag wrestling on Fujita, cutting off the ring and trying to keep Hidaka out. While Hidaka’s in he’s every bit as smooth as you know him as, and really was an elite talents throughout the 2000s, particularly when it comes to technical wrestling. On the flipside, Tanaka was an elite talent at jumping off the top rope through a table, and then hits a wild brainbuster on a pile of chairs on the floor. Poor Fujita. That said, Otani & Tanaka wrestling in such a way that’s bullying and heelish is a natural fit for them, especially for being against such a well liked babyface team like Hidaka & Fujita. Otani gave a lot to these guys, and by the end the crowd was rallying around Hidaka. And that end was met after a great sequence involving Hidaka’s Shawn Otani starts going Suplex Crazy on Hidaka and quickly knocks Fujita out. They end up throwing everything at Hidaka including a Doomsday Ace Crusher, and Otani’s big moves but Hidaka won’t die! Otani sets up for a second Spiral Bomb, but Hidaka counters into a Small Package, no dice for Emblem on that night, though it really made Hidaka & Fujita look great, but also set up what kind of team Emblem would be from then on. Otani & Tanaka are great partners or rivals and have a laundry list of great stuff between them and it’s great to still see them going strong today.
Going into 2005, Hashimoto left Zero-One and placed Otani in charge, citing financial problems as the reason for his departure, and handing the reigns to his friend with the company rebranding itself as Pro Wrestling Zero1-MAX under Otani and executive Mr. Yoshiyuki Nakamura’s watch, though they would go back to a formation of the original name just a few years later, not long after being declared the official president of Zero1 by Zero1’s parent company First On Stage Inc. Also of note is his return to his former home promotion in New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2007 for the first time in years, and through much of 2008 Zero1 and NJPW engaged in an interpromotional feud with many many hate filled matches, some of which Otani showed strong in. Most of which sadly have been lost to the internet. Otani during this time represented well and had a good showing, gaining a 3-2-1 showing, just missing out on a Finals berth with a last day loss to Hiroshi Tanahashi and finishing 1 point short. In February 2009, Otani got a major personal win, winning the Zero1 World Heavyweight Title, his first and only World Heavyweight Title win in puroresu to date. Sadly his reign wasn’t as memorable as you’d hope for for such a legend, as he lost it in March of that year to one of Zero1’s younger stars, Ryouji Sai. As the year went on, Otani maintained a strong presence in Zero1, but not to the extent as we had seen in years prior and one would wonder if time was catching up to the 17 year vet. At that point in October Otani was set up to challenge Shinsuke Nakamura by Masahiro Chono, as Chono announced that Otani was the wrestler that “inherits the gene of Shinya Hashimoto.” And we will get into that challenge here, Otani vs Nakamura from October 12th, 2009.
Otani came out to a special entrance, flanked by Zero1 wrestlers and Shinya Hashimoto’s son Daichi, as he entered to an opening of Hashimoto’s theme song “Bakusho Sengen” before his music hit. Otani started off strong, hitting a big German Suplex early that sent Nakamura scrambling to the outside in a really cool moment. They settle into working the mat, and it’s not fluid but it’s good in that there’s a sense of struggle, and the fight over Nakamura going for the armbar. Although Otani was a representative of another company he’s also a really well liked NJPW veteran and Nakamura was far from endearing himself to the crowd, purveying a sense of both violence and arrogance with each kick and knee strike, midway through the match, Nakamura casually delivers a headbutt that busts Otani wide open in an epic Black Savior moment. The crowd was fully behind Otani here, getting mega into his facewash and olé kick. One of the best moments occurs when Otani hits a leg sweep in tribute to Hashimoto that has everyone excited, and we see a young Daichi getting excited on the outside. Sadly, the excitement carried Otani only so far, as Otani got hit with a Boma-Ye, and in one of my favorite veteran Otani tropes does his patented “I’m dazed and confused but by God I’m fightin’!” fireups until Nakamura hit another Boma-Ye, and it was over, though Nakamura gave Otani a cold handshake afterwards, perhaps a nod to the departed soul of Hashimoto, who represented Strong Style perhaps better than anyone, as the crowd chanted Otani’s name. This to me was a great great match, and Otani’s best stylistically of his heavyweight run. Though maligned, he still was Otani and showed once again that he was capable of greatness, even in failure.
Zero1’s had its’ ups and downs in recent years, shady business dealings and company restructuring has played a prevalent role throughout Zero1’s recent history, but through it all Otani’s been the top consistent through the years, Otani largely represented in the ring as a tag team and Trios competitor, without a singles title to show for it for over 6 years, largely focusing on his behind the scenes role with appearances more about his star power and treating the fans who like him more than anything. But that seemed to change in 2015. as Otani was again placed in a major angle of the company, as for the first time in 14 years Otani jumped back into the Jr. Heavyweight division, saying that the Juniors division had lost its’ way and he wanted them, specifically Ikuto Hidaka, long thought to be the ace of Zero1’s Juniors and one of its’ top talents to get their act together. As a result he reformed his original tag team with Tatsuhito Takaiwa, and went on to win 3 championships within 3 weeks, becoming a triple champion! Winning the NWA International Lightweight Tag Team Championships with Takaiwa and defeating Minoru Tanaka in a great match taking home both the ZERO1 International Junior Heavyweight & ZERO1 World Junior Heavyweight Titles. Otani also carried the mantle of one of the top stars of the company going into the new year, Zero1 clearly treating its’ juniors division with a level of respect rarely seen in companies. The match I’ll be looking at here is Otani’s match on one of Zero1’s biggest shows annually, it’s New Year’s Day show from Korakuen Hall as the band got back together! With 3 of my favorite wrestlers of the 90’s facing 3 of my favorite wrestlers today. Shinjiro Otani, Koji Kanemoto, & Tatsuhito Takaiwa take on the Dangan Yankees team of Ikuto Hidaka, Isami Kodaka, & Yuko Miyamoto from January 1st, 2016.
Minoru Tanaka joined the junior legends at ringside to complete the foursome for this sweet match. Kodaka & Takaiwa start things off as the Yankees are styling in Hidaka’s attire. Takaiwa knocks Kodaka out and the Yankees do their amusing huddle spot which leads to the Yankees getting an advantage though the crowd chants for Otani, who delivers a sweet Dropkick. I know he’s been around forever and he looks older than dirt but you have to remember Otani’s only 43. He’s not some washed up guy, really none of the 3 are. Kanemoto’s still really great and Takaiwa can still throw bombs. There’s a really funny spot where Kanemoto’s about to do his Facewash/Olé Kick, but Otani begs for the tag. But after Miyamoto steps in to interfere Kanemoto stops that and they delivered stereo Olé Kicks! Awesome! Things eventually broke down with all 6 men running in and fighting, the Yankees bringing their awesome brand of comedy, and the Legends hitting some big moves including Otani hitting a top rope Dropkick! The finish comes after more awesomeness, Hidaka’s all alone, and Takaiwa hits a Triple Powerbomb into a Kanemoto German Suplex, then Otani hits a running Liger Bomb for the crowd pleasing win. I shudder to think of the jaded soul that didn’t have loads of fun with this match. Everyone in this rocks in the ring.
To this day Otani still holds the two singles Jr. Titles in Zero1, though just a few days ago he and Takaiwa dropped the Dangan Yankees team of Hidaka & Fujita “Jr.” Hayato. Otani also has regularly teamed as Emblem with Masato Tanaka, and continues to churn out good performances after years of questions surrounding him. In the end one wonders what could have been had he been able to stay at his natural weight class, but at least he’s always stayed relevant and his work the last two years as he’s truly been set in position of bully veteran has been some of his better stuff since his turn to Heavyweight all those years ago. But keep your eyes peeled for Otani as he wrestles these days, he’ll always be Otani. And his prime run stands up there with the elite tier of in-ring performers in any promotion in arguably one of the best time periods in wrestling history. He remains an unheralded and underrated figure in the industry today and a must watch performer at his highest peak.