This past February 12, at the tender age of 58, Keiji Muto defeated Go Shiozaki at Pro Wrestling NOAH’s big return to Tokyo Nippon Budokan at a show aptly titled Back To Budokan. Muto became the 34th GHC Heavyweight Champion, stopping Shiozaki’s magnificent reign at 405 days and eight defenses. The win, while certainly mind-boggling, was also historic in that it put Muto in a rather exclusive club; he and two others (Kensuke Sasaki and Yoshihiro Takayama) are the only wrestlers to hold the primary titles in Pro Wrestling NOAH, All Japan Pro Wrestling, and New Japan Pro Wrestling.
— プロレスリング・ノア (@noah_ghc) February 12, 2021
Muto had been making occasional appearances for NOAH since 2004, his second year of ownership of All Japan, including a match at NOAH’s show on 1/5/2020 at Tokyo Korakuen Hall; a show possibly more known for an appearance that did NOT take place, as Minoru Suzuki chose to stay in New Japan to feud with Jon Moxley, right before the world as we knew it ended.
In 2020, however, Muto was at a bit of a crossroads. He’d continued to wrestle in matches, despite having both his knees replaced in April 2018, but had also seen the promotion he’d founded in 2013, Wrestle-1, close down with its final show on 4/1/2020, a show he was on the losing side of in an eight-man match.
For most wrestlers, this would be career-ending. However, this would not be the first such crossroads that Keiji Muto would face, and come out in an even better position that he started. For that, we’d have to go all the way back to 2000.
Necessity Is the Mother of Reinvention
Muto’s 2000 was, in short, Not Great. It began at that year’s NJPW January 4th Tokyo Dome show, Wrestling World 2000, losing a match to Masahiro Chono that saw the end of nWo Japan, now folded into Chono’s TEAM2000. Two losing matches as Great Muta (a DQ loss to Chono on 4/7/2000 in the Tokyo Dome, and an IWGP Heavyweight title match against then-champion Kensuke Sasaki in his Power Warrior persona on 5/5/2000 in the Fukuoka Dome) would round out Muto’s contributions to New Japan Pro Wrestling for the year.
The bulk of Muto’s year was spent on excursion into Vince Russo’s WCW. In days past, Great Muta was a very popular figure in the company, his rivalry with Sting the stuff of legend. It was not to be this time around. Muta regularly lost to the likes of Tank Abbott, KroniK and Ernest “The Cat” Miller. He was put into a stable called The Dark Carnival, along with Vampiro, Dale Torborg as the KISS Demon, and the Insane Clown Posse. It was not all bad, however. At the WCW New Blood Rising PPV, following a singles loss to The Cat, Muta & Vampiro would win the WCW World Tag Team titles from KroniK … for 24 hours, losing them to Rey Mysterio Jr. & Juventud Guerrera the next night on Nitro. Muta would face Sting a fair few times during this excursion, but they were never the classics of old, Muta never on the winning side, and rarely over five minutes. After seeing out September in WCW, Muto’s remaining match for the year was teaming with old rival Nobuhiko Takada in a winning effort v. Ken Shamrock & Don Frye at Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye in the Osaka Dome on 12/31/2000.
While Muto was in WCW, however, the entire Japanese wrestling business was in a state of shock, beginning with the exodus of Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, and nearly every other Japanese talent from All Japan Pro Wrestling to form Pro Wrestling NOAH. Such was the turmoil that AJPW actually had to start working with NJPW despite decades of rivalry in order to survive.
In this new frontier for puroresu, Muto was widely seen as finished as a major player. Between being humbled in NJPW, a disastrous tenure in WCW, two shot knees, accusations of laziness, and rapidly thinning hair, Muto was at a true crossroads heading into Wrestling World 2001 at the Tokyo Dome on 1/4/2001.
And thus, the stage was set.
Muto was initially meant to wrestle on the show as Great Muta, teaming with FMW legend Hayabusa. Between the time the match was agreed and the event date, Eiji Ezaki had double reconstructive elbow surgery that November, so he was out of contention. Instead, Muto would be paired with Shinjiro Otani, going up Manabu Nakanishi & Jushin “Thunder” Liger.
Muto’s entrance came as a shock, as he’d shaved his head and walked out with a swagger nobody had seen from him in some time. When the bell rang, Muto & Otani proceeded to kick the shit out of Nakanishi & Liger, beating them inside of six minutes. Clearly not the result anyone in the Tokyo Dome had expected.
Muto started the year as he meant to go on. His next match would be on 1/28/2001, in All Japan Pro Wrestling, defeating Taiyo Kea. Muto would go between NJPW and AJPW the whole of that year, eventually forming a stable with members from both promotions, something that was unheard of at the time. The BATT stable (“Bad Ass Translate Trading”–your guess is as good as mine) would incorporate Muto, Otani (who would be out of NJPW by February that year, to help start up Pro Wrestling ZERO-1 with Shinya Hashimoto), MMA fighter Don Frye, All Japan’s Taiyo Kea and Hiroshi Hase, and Michinoku Pro’s Jinsei Shinzaki.
On 3/18/2001, Muto faced off against Brian Johnston at a NJPW card in Amagasaki, and gave wrestling one of his most lasting contributions. At this particular show, Muto debuted a new strike by which he would get his opponent on one knee, then run up, use his opponent’s raised knee to step off his opponent, and hit him with his own knee or shin. The move was called Shining Wizard, and it has since become one of the most used maneuvers in modern pro wrestling.
Muto and BATT would tear through both NJPW and AJPW through that Spring, rarely taking a loss. Things really picked up on 6/8/2001, however, when Muto beat Genichiro Tenryu at Tokyo Nippon Budokan for AJPW’s Triple Crown championship, making Muto the first-ever NJPW wrestler to win AJPW’s revered titles. Muto would successfully defend the Triple Crown four times, including two such matches in NJPW, something that would have been scandalous the previous year, against the likes of “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, Masahiro Chono, Tatsumi Fujinami, and Scott Hall.
Between rejuvenating a flagging career, innovating a move that would spread like wildfire, and winning a prestigious title, you’d think that would be enough for one year. Muto had a lot more to come, however.
The Shining Wizard
In August, Muto competed in G1 Climax 2001, taking one defeat in the group stage (to Satoshi Kojima), before beating Tadao Yasuda in the semi-finals. He would fall in the Final to Yuji Nagata, who was being primed to be NJPW’s new Ace at the time. Although it infuriated me at the time, it makes sense in retrospect–Muto was another company’s champion, and Antonio Inoki’s disdain for Giant Baba still ran deep at the time. Thus, the new top guy in New Japan defeating the champion of All Japan, even if that champion was an NJPW-contracted wrestler, would be the message sent to everyone else in Japan. (For his part, Nagata would get his first IWGP Heavyweight title reign within a year of his G1 Climax victory.)
Undeterred, however, the very next week, Muto did something totally out of left field–create a new alternate persona. The Great Muta had been sidelined during this time, and wouldn’t re-emerge until 2002. Instead, for his tag team match with Jinsei Shinzaki in Michinoku Pro against a NJPW TEAM2000 tandem of Tatsutoshi Goto & Hiro Saito, Muto became Kokushi Muso, painted head to toe in kanji much like Shinzaki has been known to do. This persona was only used twice more in 2001, and sparingly since.
Despite being Triple Crown champion, and G1 Climax 2001 finalist, Muto still had more to come. Teaming regularly with Taiyo Kea, the two would win AJPW’s World Tag Team titles on 10/22/2001, defeating Genichiro Tenryu & Yoji Anjo. Six days later, they would win the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team titles from Tatsumi Fujinami & Osamu Nishimura. The juxtaposition of Muto having six individual title belts in his possession at one time (the three that made up the Triple Crown, the two belts comprising the AJPW World Tag Team titles, and the IWGP tag strap) made for some of the coolest photographs in wrestling history. The pair would end 2001 winning All Japan’s Real World Tag League, losing only twice, before defeating Toshiaki Kawada & Mitsuya Nagai in the Final.
After a scorcher of a year, one would think there were no surprises left from Muto, but such was not the case. On 1/4/2002, one year to the day that this journey began, Muto & Hiroshi Hase beat Tatsumi Fujinami & Osamu Nishimura for what wound up being Muto’s last match as an NJPW-contracted wrestler. On 1/11/2002, the unthinkable happened again. Muto announced he would be joining All Japan Pro Wrestling instead as a full-time wrestler. Satoshi Kojima and Kendo Kashin would join him in defecting to AJPW. New Japan immediately stripped Muto & Kea of the IWGP tag titles. Muto & Kea would defend the AJPW World Tag Team titles in Muto’s first match as an AJPW wrestler on 1/14/2002, but then lose the Triple Crown to Toshiaki Kawada on 2/24/2002.
Muto’s 2002 wasn’t as seismic as his 2001, but nothing to sneeze at either. He would win Champion Carnival that year, and regain the Triple Crown as Great Muta by defeating Genichiro Tenryu once more. The last swerve was yet to come, however. By the time October 2002 rolled around, Keiji Muto would be the owner and president of All Japan Pro Wrestling, as Motoko Baba transferred all Baba family stock to Muto. Not a bad couple of years for someone who was seen as on the way out at the turn of the 21st century.
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Since then, Muto’s work both in-ring and as a promoter has been diminishing returns. He is clearly not what he once was as an in-ring performer, his era as owner of AJPW is not held in very high regard (and ended in disgrace), and Wrestle-1, formed in his own breakaway from AJPW, would fold within seven years. Even now, with two surgically replaced knees, one would think he would have hung it up. A recent botched handspring elbow in NOAH raised that specter yet again.
Yet despite all this, you can see parallels between then, and his current run in NOAH. Muto came to NOAH in 2020 at another low point in his career, and in a Japanese wrestling business that was in severe flux, this time due to the pandemic. One of his first matches as a NOAH regular in 2020 brought about a new persona; however, in this case, it was veteran ace Naomichi Marufuji wrestling with Great Muta, as his own Muta-like persona, MARUFUJI. As with BATT, Muto would form a unit around him, the M’s Alliance (all members of which have M in their first or last names). And, of course, Muto became GHC Heavyweight Champion, while not being signed as a NOAH-contracted wrestler. That only came after winning the title.
One could say, that given NOAH’s (and DDT’s) owners CyberAgent choices of their main champions right now are all over the age of 50 (including Jun Akiyama and Kazuyuki Fujita), this could be all largesse on the part of nostalgic-leaning booking, putting the belt on a Name. Then again, someone booked Muto’s 2001 as well, in two companies.
It’s doubtful Muto’s 2021 will be as earth-shattering as his 2001, and he won’t own a company in the end. At the moment, however, he is still GHC Champion. Shine on, you crazy wizard.