It’s been a depressing decade, the 2010s. Like, one of its mascots is a cartoon dog sipping a cup of coffee in a burning house. Like, the things keeping me going are professional wrestling and the promise that John Wick: Chapter 4 and The Matrix 4 are gonna come out on the same day and one-up each other so far as grunge-infused theme songs are concerned. Like, my wrestler of the decade is, on one end of the spectrum, a guy who nearly headbutted himself to death and, here, on the other end of the spectrum, is a guy who looks concussion-dealing wrestlers in the eye and shrugs in their violent faces.
Toru Yano is the wrestler of the decade.
More than that, Toru Yano is the greatest wrestler alive. Go ahead, Google “wrestlers who are alive.” The Sublime Master Thief stands tall over all of them, from Ric Flair to L.A. Park to Toshiaki Kawada, and this is not a bit. I love Yano’s matches, I love his angles, I love how he looks, how he moves, and how the crowd reacts to his presence. Toru Yano has won zero singles championships this decade, but greatness is not measured in championships or big wins—it’s about how well you practice your craft, and so far as comedy wrestling goes, he is a master.
The arc of Yano’s decade is an interesting one. He was a founding member of Chaos. He lost a hair vs. hair match against Hiroshi Tanahashi. He regularly teamed with Shinsuke Nakamura and Tomohiro Ishii. He wrestled Rob Van Dam at Wrestle Kingdom V and stole RVDs thumb-pointing taunt. A lot of what makes Yano my favorite wrestler now was present back then—watching him wrestle (and shave the head of) young lion Hiromu Takahashi, there’s the red chair, the hair pull, the amateur skills tossed to the side in favor of shortcuts and outright cheating.
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By the time I started watching New Japan, Chaos was no longer a heel stable, and Yano was no longer a jerk with a penchant for stealing championship belts. He was a pest, someone who ping-ponged back and forth between NJPW and NOAH as needed, usually as a thorn in the side of Minoru Suzuki. In 2013, Yano eliminated Suzuki from the New Japan Cup tournament and beat him in the G1 Climax. In 2014, he beat Suzuki in the G1 Climax tournament again. In 2015, he ran and finished the Tokyo Marathon and teamed with Naomichi Marufuji in a winning effort against Suzuki and Takashi Iizuka on the same day.
Yano’s 4-0 record over Suzuki in the G1 and his presence in the Suzuki-gun leader’s life as a general nuisance is my favorite feud in wrestling, a consistently funny delight in a medium that’s largely suspicious of the value and malleability of comedy. In the United States, we have to endure old man after old man after old man saying, of wrestlers like Orange Cassidy, that “funny don’t make money.” In New Japan, Yano’s G1 matches are spectacle. He’s so shifty as a wrestler and so crafty as a rulebreaker that he’s a legitimate threat to everybody on the roster. This year, he managed to break Jon Moxley’s undefeated streak by taping Mox’s leg to Shota “Shooter” Umino’s leg and forcing them to hop, three-legged race style, to the ring in futility. He also had a banger with Ishii, throwing leg-quivering forearms and belly-to-belly suplexes with aplomb.
That I’ve made it this far into my case without mentioning the YTR VTR series, the DVDs he produces and releases as a side-hustle, is testament to how much I love his in-ring routine.
The DVDs, produced either in celebration of his longevity in New Japan or to document the lives of he and his pals in Chaos, are indescribably good, and the fact that hawking them to other wrestlers is part of his pre-match routine is the most Gen X/Millennial gimmick in wrestling, aside from his shrugging in the face of danger.
So yeah, I enjoy Toru Yano, but what makes him the best wrestler of the decade? Such declarative being subjective, I’ll start here: It is incredibly difficult to make me laugh during a wrestling match. I love comedy wrestling, but I started this decade as a play-by-play commentator and ended it as a critic, and while I’ll cringe and scream and pop for a lot of what happens during a wrestling match, seeing the same comedy wrestlers over and over again, in the ring or on the mic, is akin to being a regular at an open mic. It’s not that the jokes aren’t funny, but once I’m familiar with them from the ground up, from a rudimentary sentence in a notebook to a polished, on-stage set-up and punchline, all I can do is appreciate the routine.
It’s the same in wrestling. There are a lot of funny wrestlers. Plenty of good routines. I can think of two who make me laugh consistently, regardless of how often I’ve seen the routine, and to the best of my knowledge Orange Cassidy didn’t lose a match because he was stuck in a Paradise Lock outside the ring for 20 seconds.
Toru Yano is the wrestler of the decade because this decade has been dark, the next has the potential to be darker, and in spite of that and my poisoned brain I’ve laughed through two hours of his matches while figuring out how to write this piece. Like Shibata, I’m choosing Yano because of what he means to me, personally and artistically. We need wrestlers like Yano, battling back against the horror of existence by punching existence in the dick. We need to believe we can win, against anyone at any time. He does. He will continue to do so. And as long as he does, I will be there, laughing along with him.