Seriously boys, it's damn real: Kurt Angle and Yuji Nagata
March 8, 2007 by Will B.

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There's been plenty of bluff and bluster coming from the mouth of Kurt Angle as of late; much of it to do with competing in the world of MMA. If Angle is to be believed, he's had no shortage of offers - UFC, PRIDE, Elite XC- it seems everyone wants a piece of Your Olympic Hero. The operative word is of course, if, as the reality of the situation is that Angle is so severely messed up that hopefully he'll never compete in any of these promotions; and all this namedropping is merely an attempt on Angle's part to capitalise on America's current infatuation with MMA.

Still, it did come as a relief that when his first non-TNA appearance was announced, it was for none of the above. What seemed ironic about it was that Angle would instead be teaming with the wrestler that took the biggest tumble in the wake of the MMA boom on the other side of the Pacific - Yuji Nagata.

To appreciate Nagata's slump, you need to appreciate his role in his company, New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Like Angle, Nagata was a standout amateur wrestler before he turned pro, twice representing Japan in the Asian Games. After joining New Japan in 1992, he quickly developed into an excellent worker, with a crisp, believable ring style. He was special, and New Japan's powers-that-be had big plans for him. One of New Japan's longest running gimmicks has been their top guns taking on the best that other fighting styles have to offer, to demonstrate to their fans that their style (i.e. Pro-Wrestling) was the strongest in the land - hence the term 'strong style'. From Antonio Inoki vs. Mohammed Ali in the 70s, to Shinya Hashimoto vs. (Olympic Judo silver medallist) Naoya Ogawa in 90s, it was an enduring gimmick, and Nagata was its heir apparent. Then, New Japan messed with the formula, and Nagata found himself (figuratively) castrated.

The first Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye show, held December 31st 2000, had been a monster success. Pitting New Japan wrestlers against the stars of PRIDE - at the time the hottest promotion in Japan - in a series of worked matches, both sides traded wins and came out of it smelling of roses. Such was the shows success, it returned the next year bigger than ever, this time with a New Japan vs. K-1 flavour. It even received a live TV slot on TBS (one of the biggest terrestrial TV channels in Japan). The difference this time was that the fights were - with the exception (sadly) of Inoki & The Great Sasuke vs. Giant Silva & Mystery Mask - all real. The biggie was an eagerly anticipated re-match between Kazuyuki Fujita and Mirko Cro-Cop. Things went awry however, when Fujita injured himself two weeks before the fight. All eyes turned to Nagata...

After years of seeing his stock slowly rise, 2001 had been Nagata's finest year, highlights being a victory over an on-fire Keiji Muto to win the annual G1 Climax tournament and headlining his first Tokyo Dome show. His second Tokyo Dome main event was scheduled against NOAH's Jun Akiyama on January 4th. Taking the Bom-Ba-Ye fight was a tremendous risk. A poor showing could kill his momentum, but a win would turn him into a superstar. And after all, Nagata had all his amateur wrestling skills, whilst Cro-Cop was thought to be a kick-boxer with no ground game. Under pressure to save the day, with 14 days notice, it was on.

It wasn't so much that Nagata lost... It was how he lost. New Japan's elite had been beaten by outsiders before, but not in 21 seconds. KO'd after a kick to the head and a volley of unanswered blows, Nagata hadn't just lost; he'd lost and looked like a loser. Put simply, New Japan aces were supposed to be made of sterner stuff. His image shattered, fans lost their faith in 'Mr Saikyo'.

Nagata fell to Akiyama on January 4th in a strong match that had no way near the heat it would have had a week earlier. A record breaking IWGP title reign (10 successful defenses) and a heel run in NOAH helped matters somewhat - his performances against the likes of Manabu Nakanishi, Yoshihiro Takayama and Akira Taue were all world class - but the aura of old was gone. In the increasingly MMA-obsessed New Japan, Nagata was to many an embarrassing reminder of what pro-wrestling wasn't.

That a conclusive loss to Fedor Emelianeko in another shoot in Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2003, did minimal damage to his career only goes to show how much his star had fallen. Worse still, it appeared New Japan had given up on Nagata. It must have been a trying time for him, as he watched the company he had done so much for attempt to thrust the inexperienced (but MMA-savvy) Shinsuke Nakamura into Nagata's role as company ace.

The last few years have been fairly uneventful for Nagata. Since dropping the belt to Yoshihiro Takayama in 2003, he's been out of the IWGP title picture. Looking at the calamitous booking of their champions - Tenzan, Fujita, Sapp - Nagata's demotion may well have been a blessing in disguise (but that's another story...). Instead, Nagata's cemented his reputation as the most reliable heavyweight on the roster, New Japan's equivalent of Chris Benoit, if you will. And like everyone's favourite gap-toothed wolverine was a few years back, he's now in the enviable position where many fans are clamouring for him to again win the big one. Time is apparently a great healer.

Nagata should hopefully serve as a cautionary tale to the likes of Kurt Angle. The pitfalls of working in the unpredictable world of MMA are manifold, particularly when all you have to offer is your name. Yuji Nagata and Kurt Angle's careers have many parallels; here's hoping that ill-advised forays in MMA will never be amongst them. Both men would achieve far more working alongside (or better, against) each other doing what they do best.

by Will B. (View/Submit your feedback here)..

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