Abe (left) and Nomura (right)Abe (left) and Nomura (right)

Intro note: I love all sorts of things, including more… esoteric pro wrestling. I understand the average reader of this ‘stack probably doesn’t. There’s value in all sorts of different forms of expression and exploration of different artforms. I don’t apologize for subjecting you to very good pro wrestling. It’s better than superheroes.

For some artists, the timing is never right. Your ideas and tastes never quite align with the world you inhabit. Your job, at that point, is either to bend to the will of your given market, or to create the art you feel needs to be birthed into the world. This is something I often struggle with, in part giving myself any sort of credit as being an artist at all, never mind one not taking Personal Responsibility for whatever capital F failures I’m dealing with.

Because it’s a lot easier to say “my frustrations with the publishing industry and the markets are that I’m out of place,” than it is to say “my work sucks and nobody cares.” At what point are you a viral clip from a 30-year-old television sitcom of Will Smith hugging Uncle Phil saying “why don’t [they] want me, man?” The side note here is that is one powerful and effective episode of television with a lot of incredibly strong performances, huh? Anyway. We’re living in the age of Personal Responsibility, where if you’re failing, it’s not anyone else’s fault but your own. And you know what? That’s not always wrong. Sometimes your work does suck, and sometimes it is your fault. The problem is, it’s so damned difficult to know where the line is when your tastes don’t align with whatever else is going on.

The enduring archetype of the starving artist still has legs for a reason, and there’s something to be said for taking a stand for things you believe in when it comes to creating.

It’s worth expressing yourself no matter what, even if it’s not what sells, what’s popular or what other people love.

Earlier today I watched a wrestling match between two younger wrestlers who’ve taken it upon themselves to carry on a tradition of a style that, frankly, very few people care about anymore. For a brief period in the 80s and 90s in Japan, there was a popular style of pro wrestling called “shoot style.” It’s actually the direct predecessor to modern mixed martial arts (MMA/UFC), and a style that lingered around during the rise of mixed martial arts before being pushed off to the side. Somewhere in the middle of the death of shoot style arose a promotion in Japan called BattlArts. Or, well, Fighting Detectives BattlArts. Born from the impending doom of UWF offshoot PWFG, it looked to keep the U-style tradition alive while making some adjustments to the style.

For hardcore wrestling fans, BattlArts is a name of legend. You won’t meet a lot of fans of BattlArts, but if you meet one, you’ll find someone who loves the style, the wrestlers and will always search for a replacement. There have been brief flirtations with reviving UWF style. This includes Kiyoshi Tamura’s U-Style, which only ran a handful of shows before it turned into dojo shows under the U-File Camp name, instead focusing on churning out talent to work elsewhere. There are echoes of the style throughout modern pro wrestling, albeit they exist primarily in Japan and, oddly enough, Canada, where former WWE comedy wrestler Santino brought in BattlArts founder Yuki Ishikawa to help train a fresh batch of wrestlers, but anyway, I could write about Yuki Ishikawa a lot, as well as the ill-fated history of BattlArts and every minor offshoot, but if you’re reading this, you probably are looking at the last two paragraphs as mere word soup of proper nouns without context, and for that, I’m sorry.

What I’m doing is establishing a history. A narrative.

Fuminori Abe and Takuya Nomura are two promising wrestlers both under the age of 30 who’ve primarily competed in smaller, independent promotions in Japan and have had brief runs in larger companies as freelancers. Together they are a tag team dubbed the Astronauts, but they’ve had a series of matches spanning their respective careers where they meet in the ring and beat the snot out of each other. Whenever this happens, it’s magical.

Well, it happened again a few weeks ago when the two decided to run their own BattlArts tribute show; We Are Fighting Detectives. The show featured a veritable who’s who of shoot-style stalwarts who work for various promotions. There was Hideki Suzuki, Ikuto Hidaka, Super Tiger, KEITA, Yuki Ishikawa, Daisuke Sekimoto, Daisuke Ikeda, Minoru Fujita and, of course, Abe and Nomura.

The whole show was a demonstration of a style that fans have all-but forgotten, but the artists themselves refuse to let go of. It’s the kind of pro wrestling you won’t get to watch often, although there are attempts to imitate or recreate it (GCW in the US runs an event called Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport a few times a year that has brought in various Japanese wrestlers to work this style against wrestlers from around the world and it’s pretty good!). It’s the kind of show that collects the true believers and lets them iterate and re-capture a lost art form for an appreciative audience, which obviously includes me.

The main event match between the two of them is a showcase of what that style, and what wrestling itself, could be. It’s two younger, immensely talented guys who, if they really wanted to be successful working a more contemporary style, could, but actively choose not to. New Japan Pro Wrestling is technically the pained birth parent of the style. Founder Antonio Inoki’s obsession with “real fights” helped create his legend status, but also pushed his best pupils to leave in the 80s to go on this journey of “real pro wrestling.” New Japan still focuses on a style called “strong style” that has its roots in those real fights and is perhaps the closest major company to work this style, but as with everything else, NJPW evolved to keep up with modern tastes. That means it’s closer in presentation and content to modern American wrestling, albeit with their own flourishes. Modern wrestling is high-paced, very athletic and dramatic, focusing less on the struggle and more on cramming more content and big moments into each match to pop the crowd. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just different. This is an era defined by performers like Kenny Omega, Will Osprey, and other athletic wrestlers, and where the continued miraculous career of Katsuyori Shibata is an interesting aside more than anything.

Familiarity is the story here, where initial mat work quickly breaks down into strike exchanges, the two attempting to incite each other. Nomura looks to take out Abe’s legs, by proxy his kicks, and Abe can only fight back. A dragon screw helps turn the early tide of the match away from Nomura and Abe follows with some kicks, followed by some brutal punt kicks, the ref attempting to do a standing 10-count multiple times, but Abe wasn’t done kicking Nomura. It’s both a sign of respect at knowing how tough Nomura is, but also the ultimate disrespect of not letting him show his fighting spirit recovering from said punt. From here it’s back-and-forth, with both men attempting to submit or kick the other one into oblivion.

What’s unique here is the structure. It isn’t just “my move, your move,” instead there’s more struggle at play. Nomura will a few times work for the full nelson, including a half nelson struggle on the mat that he turns into a sugar hold. The intent behind that is he wants to hit a dragon suplex, and he does, but it takes almost the full 20 minutes for that to happen. When he does hit that dragon suplex, the impact is so much more accentuated and is downright spellbinding. Just like the kicks they’ve worked throughout the match all mattered, but those at the end of the match felt so much more brutal. Every standing count had an air of “this could be it” to them, and just watching this, there were kicks that landed and made me shout. The headbutt spots were teetering on the edge of brutal and hilarious, with the intent there to do both. These guys were having fun with each other, even in the midst of battle.

The finish is an echo of the opening few minutes of the match, right down to placement in relation to the camera. Early in the match, Nomura had a leg lock on Abe and he was facing the camera and was able to break out with a few punches. Here, Nomura, much more worn down, tries to do the same thing, but it’s too much and after Abe absorbs his best punch and a slap, he’s forced to tap out.

While I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s one of the best matches I’ve seen, I’m not even sure if it’s the best match I’ve seen this year, but it’s a match dripping with style and intent. This is the kind of match that we don’t get often enough between two artists who’ve made intentional decisions with their careers, which has led to both their successes and for the respective ceilings they’ve met. But damn, are these two fantastic. This is exactly the kind of stuff the world needs more of.

There’s something inspiring about knowing there’s such raw, immense talent in the world and that they’ve chosen a more obscure, difficult path. Artists, even fighting artists, oozing with this much intent, are what we need, not deserve.

Be like the Astronauts.

Note: If you enjoyed this match, it’s uploaded to CyberFight’s Wrestle-Universe, which features DDT, NOAH, TJPW and a wide array of independently produced wrestling events. They’re worth supporting if you’re interested. I’ll also give endless match recommendations and talk wrestling any day.

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