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Sunday, October 02, 2022

70s Inoki was Extreme before Extreme was Extreme: RIP Antonio Inoki

Antonio Inoki vs Umanoseke Ueda - Nail Floor Death Match - 2/8/78

MD: The first five or six minutes of this footage was the crew laboriously laying down board covered with nails after board covered with nails around the ring. Ultimately, it served as a deterrent and a tease more than anything else, which worked for the crowd in 1978. It felt like the early stages of an Onita exploding cage match where there's so much effort to avoid the cage at all times, where it's a looming presence hovering over the wrestlers that affects their strategy but that doesn't actually come into play, until it does. Here, it actually doesn't, maybe until Ueda is knocked to the floor post match, but even then he lands on his feet. 

That said, this match contains within it a wonderful example of what made Inoki so special. The first six minutes or so were primarily on the mat. Ueda could go and a lot of the tactics people remember him for were more about standing out and getting over than necessity. In going through 1986 recently, when he faced the UWF guys +after his turn, he could hang with them better than you'd have expected. Here, he traded holds and advantages with Inoki. When it became obvious he wasn't making any inroads though, he took advantage of the looser rules for a gimmick match like this and blatantly went low. Three shots to the groin, a choke, and then the stomps. Here's where the nails came into play, the tease of it as he stomped away trying to press Inoki out of the ring as the fans buzzed and Inoki scrambled on his back on the apron, fighting for what seemed like his literal life. He was never afraid to look vulnerable. He saw the strength in it not necessarily to build sympathy, like Terry Funk in Japan might do, for Antonio Inoki did not need sympathy, but instead to build anticipation in the hearts of the crowd for when he would fire back.

Here it was by dodging Ueda's shots around the ringpost while still on the apron, a fairly unique visual in all the annals of wrestling history. One shot from Ueda, if landed, might knock him off into the nails, but in dodging and weaving, he made Ueda overstretch and he caught the arm, slamming it down over the metal connective tissue of the ring. From there, everything turned. It was an electric moment and Inoki followed up with decisive deliberative tearing apart of Ueda's arm. It was intense, focused, enraged, but so measured. He lifted an arm, paused, allowed the crowd to understand what was happening and then drove it down. He wrenched the arm, pulled it high over his head, paused for the buzz, and then jammed it down over his shoulder. It was an interactive experience, a collaborative ritual of violence and revenge. At no point does it become about Inoki trying to toss Ueda into the nails. Inoki did not need to stoop to such levels when he had complete control and chose the means of his vengeance. In the end, Ueda suffered an even greater affront to his honor than having his body torn apart by the nails. Tiger Jeet Singh, unable to reach the ring due to the nails, threw in the towel to save the arm and the career of his compatriot. Such surrender from two such monsters must have been unthinkable to the crowd and here the drama of the nails became not about laceration of the flesh but instead of the spirit, with Inoki knowing how to milk every moment of the emotion like only a true wrestling mastermind could.

Antonio Inoki vs Tiger Jeet Singh Fence Death Match 2/10/77

MD: This was a title match as well, and had to be worked as one. The gimmick (a steel fence around the ring) came into play after the halfway point, but again, primarily so that Singh could get his long-deserved comeuppance. He deserved it too as he started the match rushing in and nailing Inoki with an object, shocking everyone with a very quick pin before the ref noticed it and restarted the match. After that, Inoki played towards his strength as he recovered and it was generally them trading holds. Singh began with a long top wristlock, using a slam or an unabashed hairpull to maintain control. Inoki met the moment with a short arm scissors. Both ended up on their feet stalking and fighting for positioning until Inoki got the toehold. Here, the VQ gave us a great look of wrenching agony on Singh's face. He's obviously not known for his matwork and I wouldn't say he was Ueda's equal, for instance, but the selling was pretty gripping as he scrambled from underneath. Inoki would press the advantage with a deathlock, again letting everything sink in and building the crowd's anticipation for when he would drop back and put on the pressure. Moreso than a martial artist or a warrior or a carny operator, he was a preacher conducting the hearts of his faithful. 

At one point, Singh tosses him out, prepared to use the fence, but Inoki slides back in. Later on, he can't avoid it though and Singh tosses him in and uses a cord to choke him. Ultimately, Singh knew that he couldn't outwrestle Inoki and his one trick to beat him quickly with the weapon failed, so he went back to that well again. This time Inoki reversed it and posted him, opening him up. From there, it was a matter of time. Each time Singh went for another trick, like moving the corner protection away to uncover the steel, Inoki blocked it and gave him at taste of his own medicine, leaving him a bloody mess ultimately unable to answer the call. Post-match, Inoki wanted more and kept on him. Singh looked tough in that he would keep coming, only to get slammed or dropkicked or simply punched, but it was obvious that this was Inoki's (and therefore the crowd's, if not all of Japan's) supreme victory and Singh's absolute defeat. This wasn't quite as visceral and straightforward as the Ueda match but it had to balance being a title match as well. As such, it still leaned into the spirit of the gimmick match, even if not the reality of it, and went far over the top to prove its point. Inoki absolutely knew what he was doing and he could channel and control a crowd as well as anyone.

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