Editor's note: The following originally appeared in this week's Figure Four Weekly.
"Extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear."
The definition of the word "awesome" is quite appropriate for 44-year-old Masato Tanaka, especially with "The Gladiator" Mike Awesome being the rival he was so synonymous with throughout the 1990s.
It’s a feud that certainly pushed both men to their physical limits, and for Awesome the consequences were tragic. For Tanaka, the fact that he’s here 20 years later wrestling like a man possessed is very much impressive, awe-inspiring, and also something that has to provoke apprehension and fear like the definition suggests.
This weekend I watched Zero1’s Fire Festival final, which pit Tanaka against young pretender Yusaku Obata. The match was nuts. If there were lessons to be learned from what happened to Katsuyori Shibata, they weren’t on display here.
I’m not a wrestler and I’m not a doctor, so I’m not going to try to break down that element of this. I’m a fan, and as a fan I was simply in awe of the level of performance, particularly from the 44 year old. The match went over 30 minutes and was non-stop, with Tanaka especially moving at an incredible pace. The Korakuen Hall crowd was on fire for the closing stretch and the atmosphere harkened back to years prior when Zero1 was in a better place than it is now.
Both men were launching bombs at each other -- from hard strikes to huge suplexes. Obata repeatedly hit variations of top rope double knee drops to Tanaka’s chest and stomach, while the former ECW star went to the well of his vicious Sliding D until one final match-ending blow got the job done.
In terms of effort and physical performance, this match is up there with the classics produced by New Japan this year. It may not have had the level of psychology or nuanced storytelling of a Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega match, but it was every bit as impressive from an athletic point of view. Even more so when you consider Tanaka’s age.
We’re exactly 10 years since Tanaka transformed himself from the stocky, barrel-chested (somewhat pudgy) wrestler he was in FMW to the insanely cut, lightweight version of himself that he’s maintained to this day. He was out of action with a shoulder injury at that time, and when he came back with his new look and a somewhat new style based around the Sliding D as his big new move, fans were extremely excited as he began to produce one great match after another.
Nobody thought he’d keep that up into his 40s, and yet here he is. A friend of mine (very much a casual fan) who saw him live at WrestleMania weekend with me a few years ago put it best. "He’s like a greyhound, Alan! There’s no stopping him." As implausible as it is, for now, there’s no stopping Masato Tanaka.