On March 29, 2020, Go Shiozaki was set to make his first defense of Pro Wrestling NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Championship. His opponent: 50-year-old former MMA fighter and IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuyuki Fujita. The setting: Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall. The recorded attendance: zero, in keeping with guidelines for live events intended to prevent the spread of a coronavirus that was rapidly spreading around the globe.
Performing without a live audience was a less-than-ideal creative situation that wrestlers in companies still putting on shows were adapting to all over the world. The setting was especially unfortunate for a babyface champion like Shiozaki, the kind of character meant to be fueled, to some extent, by the support of the fans. But while other companies tried to make up for the lack of audiences by having wrestlers react to matches from the stands or later by piping in cheers and boos, NOAH didn’t try to give their champion some semblance of a supportive crowd. Instead, Shiozaki vs. Fujita embraced the new possibilities produced by the emptiness of the match’s environment, and in doing so became one of the weirdest and most innovative matches of the pandemic era, and the one that best captures the feeling of the time.
A quick warning
A warning before we start to get into this match: if you haven’t watched it yet and have any interest in watching it, I recommend doing that before reading further. I also recommend watching Shiozaki vs. Fujita with as little knowledge of what happens in it as possible, because a big part of what makes this match special is the experience of watching it with no expectation of what’s about to happen. Just know you need like an hour! You can find this match on Wrestle Universe (fka DDT Universe, the streaming service with DDT, TJPW, NOAH, and more) or elsewhere online. The pre-match video package starts an hour and 57 minutes into the full show.
The build for Shiozaki vs. Fujita was in some ways a straightforward babyface champion vs. monster heel angle, but in other ways it was kind of weird even before they knew they had to have it without an audience. The weirdness came from the unusual wrestling career of Kazuyuki “Ol’ Ironhead” Fujita and its associated baggage.
Fujita was recruited by New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1993 when he was competing on the national and world level as a Greco-Roman wrestler. He debuted for NJPW in ’96 with a shoot pedigree and impressive size and strength to show off, as well as possibly more of an interest in real fighting than pro wrestling. He reportedly tried to leave NJPW for RINGS in 1999, then ended up fighting in MMA promotion PRIDE while still representing New Japan, and NJPW founder Antonio Inoki specifically. There was a bit of that dad-living-vicariously-through-his-son’s-high-school-football-career energy when Fujita entered for his fights to a version of Inoki Bom Ba Ye that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Star Wars score, with a red towel around his neck.
Fujita was successful in his MMA career and was rewarded with pro wrestling success, in keeping with the MMA-pro-wrestling crossover philosophy called Inokiism that was a major force in NJPW at the time. He returned to NJPW from PRIDE and won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the first time in 2001, vacated it in 2002 due to injury, went back and forth between PRIDE and NJPW heavily associated with Inoki in both companies, and won the IWGP Heavyweight title twice more, once in June 2004 and again in July 2005, a reign that ended when he lost the title to Brock Lesnar in a triple-threat.
Fujita left wrestling after that third IWGP reign, continued to be semi-active in MMA, and eventually returned to the squared circle in 2011, wrestling for the Inoki Genome Federation for a few years. After another hiatus, he began his currently-in-progress pro wrestling run as a freelancer. He came back to the ring in 2017 for a retirement feud with Atsushi Onita that ended with him on the losing side of a six-man tag Barbed Wire Board & Street Fight Tornado Bunkhouse Death Match. Fujita moved on to freelance in All Japan, Big Japan, and Real Japan Pro Wrestling before making his NOAH debut in September 2019, controversially beating the young Yoshiki Inamura in under four minutes. He quickly aligned with Takashi Sugiura, joined Sugiura-gun, and became a regular in NOAH, all building up to this March 2020 title challenge.
In sum, Fujita is old, big, scary, and could beat you up in real life, and if you’re familiar with wrestling fandom, a rundown of his career should make it clear why he rubs some people the wrong way. He is arguably not a “good” wrestler by the metrics a lot of people use to evaluate wrestlers, especially at age 50. It’s very unclear if, well over a decade removed from his MMA heyday, he qualifies as a “draw.” It also seems like he maybe does not give a shit and has never given a shit about pro wrestling, and he’s held the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the eighth-most combined days out of the thirty different men who have held it (this stat doesn’t mean as much now that that title doesn’t exist anymore, but pretend you read it in 2020.)
Because of all this, Fujita is instantly an established character and formidable and controversial presence whenever and wherever he shows up in a wrestling ring. He’s an overall weird dude to have around, and, the combination of his age, his booking as a monster over younger talent during his NOAH run, the baggage of his association with a widely-maligned era of NJPW, and maybe even the more recent baggage between NOAH and NJPW, makes him, to some, a stressful person to have around.
To me, these qualities also make him a fun person to have around. Old man Fujita may not have a lot of qualities people care about in wrestlers, but he has the very important wrestler quality of being A Weird And Scary Guy in spades, and weird stuff tends to happen when he’s around, the type of weird stuff that’s a valuable part of the fun of following a carny fake sport for years. Still, even if you like Fujita, going into his match with Go, the idea of him as GHC Heavyweight Champion in 2020 seems insane and the idea of him becoming the champ seems unlikely. But is really that much more unlikely than Fujita even getting a match for a world title in a major company in 2020 at all?
All these factors meant that the match was bound to be kind of fraught and weird even before it was condemned to an empty, silent venue by a company continuing to run wrestling shows during the spread of a global pandemic. How much weirder could it get? A lot, it turned out.
Stay safe out there
A major reason that I’m writing about Shiozaki vs. Fujita a year later is that watching it live, with zero preparation or expectation for what was about to happen, was hands-down the best wrestling viewing experience of the pandemic. If you didn’t have that experience, I’ll try to set the scene.
March 29, 2020, was early in the pandemic, at least for Americans, but late enough that the novel coronavirus could no longer be ignored. It was weeks after Tom Hanks and several NBA players had tested positive for COVID-19, and even people who totally blocked out international news were starting to freak out about the situation, at least a little. In California, we had gone into statewide lockdown ten days earlier, and workers deemed “essential” had started saying “Stay safe out there” as a farewell while websites had already started running articles about how everyone in the country now was baking through working at home. Working a service job most nights meant getting updates about the evolving government pandemic response over the radio while driving through ominously empty L.A. streets, which I remember made me think of air raids.
After driving home on what was still Saturday, March 28, in my time zone, detaching my sweaty hands from the steering wheel, and washing off hopefully any trace of the virus that we knew much less about than we know now, I grabbed a beer and some kind of CBD product from the fridge for a period of definitely very healthy winding-down/coping period and checked Twitter.
The timeline reminded me that Pro Wrestling NOAH was on, which reminded me that CyberAgent had bought NOAH back in January, which meant it was now on the same streaming service as DDT, which meant NOAH was way easier to watch live now than at any other time I could remember. And it was Fujita title shot day, and weird Fujita stuff happens to also be the type of stuff you want to see when you’re getting mildly high after work late at night because a pandemic is spreading throughout the world and everything is getting worse every day in a way you haven’t experienced before in your lifetime, so that was my coping entertainment decided. I clicked play on the stream of PRO WRESTLING NOAH 20th ANNIVERSARY NOAH the CHRONICLE vol.2 just before the video package for Go vs. Fujita began.
Shiozaki vs. Fujita’s entrances are more conventionally great than most of the match, and they do some final stage-setting for who these characters are and why it matters that they’re fighting each other for this title. The huge and huge-headed challenger enters first, flanked by seven of his compatriots in the dog-loving, partially-shooter, mostly-hold, overall galaxy-brain faction that is Sugiura-gun. He still comes out to the classed-up Inoki Bom Ba Ye, and his entrance video just reads INOKIISM and KAZUYUKI FUJITA on a black background; it’s a video almost anyone could make within minutes.
While Fujita calls back to another company’s past, Go Shiozaki, who started his title reign declaring “I AM NOAH,” looks every inch the heroic face of the company in his Misawa-referencing green coat, and is accompanied to the ring only by his tag partner/homie/fan service photobook co-star Katsuhiko Nakajima. This is Shiozaki’s first defense in what becomes an all-timer of a world title run that eventually lasts over 400 days and includes a heartbreaking betrayal, several brutal-looking title matches, and multiple matches over 45 minutes that actually pull off that length.
When the bell rings, Shiozaki vs. Fujita starts like a typical, serious world title match, with the competitors standing stanced-up across the ring from each other, staring with stone-faced intensity into each other’s eyes. Then they keep staring long enough that the situation is soon no longer typical. The silence of the venue, empty aside from wrestlers and crew, is briefly broken by the referee making a noise to remind Fujita and Shiozaki that they’re currently having a wrestling match. There’s only just enough blinking and facial movement to indicate that they aren’t trying to literally have a staring contest. The broadcast switches between close-ups and wider shots that show one or both men standing just often enough to freshen up the visual, of, and I cannot emphasize this enough, two men continuing to stand in the exact same position, making unwavering eye contact. The ref makes a few more noises. The timekeeper calls that five minutes have passed. Wow, they really just stared at each other for five minutes. That was weird.
But then it’s not just five minutes of staring. Aside from enough adjustment to show that they’re stanced up but not stiff, Shiozaki and Fujita keep staring at each other and not moving at all. Someone claps. Some camera shutters can be heard. At one point there’s a pan up Fujita’s torso for some reason. This is now weird as hell, but also weirdly compelling. You can’t stop staring at them staring, and then there’s the ten-minute call.
By ten minutes of silent staring, this match crosses the line into full absurdity. How long are they going to keep this up? Even Nakajima at ringside looks a little confused. At the 15-minute call it’s more confusing than ever. What is happening??? They have to start soon, right? For a moment, it looks like they might start: Fujita slowly walks to one of the corners next to his original home base, and Shiozaki adjusts by about two steps more towards the center of the ring to continue facing him. But then the staredown continues. A close-up of Shiozaki makes it look like he’s experiencing some kind of psychological attack from Fujita. Meanwhile, Fujita is almost expressionless, blinking slowly back at Shiozaki like a ham-colored frog. Are there supposed to be some kind of beams involved here? Is he beaming at him? Existence of beams aside, the point is, this match sucks you in so hard it makes you start to go crazy.
At this point you have to wonder if they’re going to go the full hour like this, or maybe 55 minutes? What’s happening in the ring is hilarious and absurd and, watching it live, with no idea of what’s going to happen or what could happen, is as compelling or more than most normal wrestling matches. The beams (?) continue (???). A new camera angle is introduced that starts at their bellies and pans up. Shiozaki might look calmer now? The 25-minute call is mind-warping. I’ve been watching two men stare at each other silently for 25 minutes? This is what 25 minutes feels like? Now it really feels like anything could happen, and after 25 minutes of watching two men stare at each other, the sunk cost fallacy is in effect—you’re stuck with this match or whatever it is to the end now, and there’s no turning back.
The sanitizer cough heard ’round the world
Shiozaki and Fujita don’t end up staring at each other for an hour; they stare at each other for half an hour before Fujita hits the first non-beam move of the match, a single-leg takedown. The bout continues on the mat, with a period of Fujita mounting or choking Shiozaki while Shiozaki works to keep a shoulder up. A lot of it shoot-y in the way you hear people complain about shoot fights all the time (i.e., too much grappling in a UFC fight = not good.) The match ending like this might be the most insane way it could potentially end aside from running out the clock with staring, but it doesn’t end like this, and the action escalates to chops, backdrops, and shoulder-tackles, At the 40-minute mark Fujita is whipping Shiozaki into the barricade outside the ring.
Shiozaki’s mouth is bloody at this point, which is especially wild to see when it feels like so little has happened yet, but nowhere near as wild as what’s about to happen. As the competitors fight outside the ring, Fujita goes to strike Shiozaki with the championship belt, but is denied by his own faction-mates with the air of someone trying to stop a toddler or very drunk person from stepping too close to traffic. Fujita moves on to the economy-size pump bottle of hand sanitizer next to the belt on the timekeeper’s table, unscrews the cap, drinks some of it, dry heaves in a way that drives home that he really just drank hand sanitizer, pours more in his mouth and spits it in Shiozaki’s face. The rest of Sugiura-gun looks legitimately shocked. Fujita wretches again. It’s usually best to assume that items used in wrestling matches are gimmicked to be less damaging than they look, but if Fujita didn’t actually drink hand sanitizer here, I will drink hand sanitizer. This was the first hand sanitizer spot of the pandemic, and it has yet to be beaten. It’s probably impossible to beat.
Kaz Fujita drank hand sanitizer, then went back for a second helping just to spit it in Go Shiozaki’s face. I’ve been thinking about this all day.🤢 #noah_ghcpic.twitter.com/Fh6TbElQSz
Post-hand-sanitizer (P.H.S.), the match starts to look more like one of DDT’s many falls-count-anywhere matches, except falls don’t really count anywhere and Fujita is just going on a rampage. He takes Shiozaki out into the hallway and maneuvers him toward the elevator bank only for the referee to lay down the law and signal that Fujita is absolutely not allowed in the elevators, which prompts Fujita to push the down button for two elevators before angrily going back to the hallway. They move to the second floor, home of a hallway so dark it doesn’t seem like anyone really planned to film there and to the balcony that Fujita tries to push Shiozaki over, growling. Shiozaki is recovering from being choked against the balcony railing when 50 minutes is called, and finally Fujita moves back to the ring, leaving a struggling Shiozaki to get back by his own devices (and the aid of his tag partner).
The final stretch of the match is straight-up good, hard-hitting wrestling in the ring, the best version of what you could have expected from Shiozaki vs. Fujita before the Staring. Fujita looks like a monster and the bloody-mouthed Shiozaki looks like he’s heroically struggling as much as any wrestler has heroically struggled before. He wins with a lariat and declares that he is NOAH and while the biggest impression of this match immediately afterwards is still 30 minutes of staring? Hand sanitizer??? it’s clear that what just happened is both absurd and great, very funny and sincerely kind of awesome. No pandemic-era experience of watching a live wrestling broadcast has yet to top it.
Wrestle like nobody’s watching
What makes Shiozaki vs. Fujita so great (and the reason the headline of this article calls it the Match of the Pandemic) isn’t just the great in-ring wrestling, the ridiculousness, or the hysterical livestreaming experience. What elevates it to a special type of greatness is that it’s the only match that makes use of the unique circumstances of wrestling during the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that captures the spirit of the pandemic.
The most lauded pandemic wrestling innovations in the English-speaking world have been the “cinematic matches.” The trend started with WrestleMania 36’s Boneyard Match (AJ Styles vs. The Undertaker) and Firefly Funhouse Match (John Cena vs. “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt) and continued throughout the empty arena year with the Fiend vs. Braun Strowman, EC3 vs. Moose, and more. While some of these matches were entertaining and Cena vs. The Fiend stands out as one of the most self-aware, character-focused stories that WWE has ever produced, for wrestling, these matches were essentially anti-innovations.
When the lack of live, in-venue audiences and their noise and energy removed a critical element of pro wrestling, cinematic matches responded by removing the wrestling from wrestling as much as possible. These were essentially movie or TV-style fight scenes produced by pro wrestling companies, staring wrestlers. Cinematic wrestling, for the most part, has removed what’s special and unique about wrestling in favor of copying the other scripted programming on TV.
Some companies adapted to the lack of live audiences in ways that stayed truer to wrestling’s traditional presentation as a live show by keeping things live or looking like they could have been filmed live while leaning into the absurdity of the industry’s “new normal” in a more overtly comedic way than most cinematic matches or Shiozaki vs. Fujita did. AEW busted out the Stadium Stampede and WWE did Money in the Bank in their corporate HQ, both of which were essentially American takes on DDT street wrestling. (DDT, meanwhile, was able to continue to do street wrestling pretty much as usual, just in spaces with fewer bystanders.)
The most effective, innovative, and long-term happy-absurd pandemic pro wrestling project has been in Emi Sakura’s Gatoh Move. The mostly-women promotion’s performance space was too small to host fans even when guidelines about event sizes loosened, so Sakura launched Choco Pro, a “no-audience” wrestling program that rejects the idea that it has no audience. The wrestlers not playing to invisible fans in the venue but to the one, true audience member, “the person who’s watching across that camera lens” creating a warm, welcoming atmosphere that, along with the show’s matches and performers, and earned it devoted fans.
In contrast to the warmth offered by Choco Pro, with Shiozaki vs. Fujita, NOAH embraced the coldness and emptiness of pandemic-induced empty-arena atmosphere created for pro wrestling. While some promotions successfully provided viewers with feel-good and/or exciting moments during the pandemic that allowed positive escapes from everyday life, watching Shiozaki vs. Fujita was an escape that felt more reflective of how everyday life was actually going. Two wrestlers have some kind of silent mental war for half an hour before drinking hand sanitizer and beating the shit out of each other just fit with the atmosphere of people waiting breaking news about how things were getting absurdly worse, and of saying “stay safe” to each other as they hoped customers would tip and wouldn’t stand too close to them.
A possible response to this is that Shiozaki vs. Fujita was not any of these things and was actually just dumb. But a big part of why it was so great is because it was so dumb and because it happened at a time when life was also very dumb. Above all, we have been living in stupid times. “Dumb and bleak!” is not the next “Both these guys!” but that was both the vibe of March 2020 and the vibe of Shiozaki vs. Fujita.
But while Shiozaki vs. Fujita, like all wrestling, is to some extent “dumb,” its opening stretch was also a logistically smart creative choice. In contrast to the common strategy of trying to make up for the lack of crowd, this match takes advantage of the unusual setting to try something new. A 30-minute, silent, staring standoff like this would be extremely risky to do in front of an audience because even a few people booing, heckling, or walking out of the venue could ruin the atmosphere, and potentially future ticket sales. But empty arena wrestling means no butts in seats to draw or upset, so while 30 minutes of staring was still insane, it wasn’t as dangerously so.
A question that may remain about whether this match was really “great” is whether Shiozaki and Fujita meant for it to be great or not. But if the intention was “we’ll have a staredown because we’re intense warriors in a psychological as well as physical battle and everyone will take it seriously” but viewers aren’t taking it seriously and are getting some other kind of meaning out of it, or if they’re taking it seriously in a different way, that doesn’t really impact whether the match was “good” or not. Death of the author hasn’t hit pro wrestling as hard as other art forms, but it can apply just as much from a critical perspective. In fact, something that made the experience of this match better was that, unlike with a lot of cinematic matches, there was way less authorial input beforehand—nobody had hyped it up to the media ahead of time as a great and innovative artistic achievement.
This is where the magic of Fujita comes in again; there’s so little distinction between his wrestling persona and real self that smart-fan speculation about what’s real vs. fake, intended vs. unintended, doesn’t come to mind as much as with other people, and the one thing you really think about his intentions as a performer during this match is “did he know that was hand sanitizer?” Fujita and Shiozaki came out and performed some weird, dumb art without insisting on anyone’s validation, and in doing so captured the absurdity and coldness of empty-arena wrestling and of pandemic-era life like no one else in their industry did.