B Show: TAKA Michinoku and Scott Taylor vs. Tajiri and Brian Christopher (1/11/97)

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This match, from an episode of Shotgun Saturday Night, functions as something of a preview for the WWF’s Light Heavyweight division, which was launched in 1997 as a half-assed response to WCW’s Cruiserweight division, which was on fire at the time. Just five days prior to the airing of this tag team match, Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio Jr. wrestled in a title vs. mask match that still stands as one of the best of that era, and the WWF wanted in on the sort of high-flying excitement WCW’s use of lucha libre stars from Mexico gave them in support of main event matches largely promoted around ex-WWF talent. They brought in a fair number of luchadores, but what’s ultimately memorable about the WWF’s Light Heavyweight division is its reliance upon Memphis stalwarts Brian Christopher and Scott Taylor, and the way they featured super junior stars who’d built their names in the Japanese independents, namely TAKA Michinoku.

Taylor and Christopher would later become famous as Scotty 2 Hotty and Grandmaster Sexay who, along with Rikishi, formed the unit known as Too Cool. Here, they’re on opposite sides of the ring. Christopher, working a Memphis heel character, teams up with Tajiri, who moonlighted in the WWF and was a member of the Big Japan Pro Wrestling promotion before becoming a regular in ECW. Taylor tags with TAKA Michinoku of Michinoku Pro who, as is noted in the commentary, has signed a long-term contract with the WWF. TAKA’s contract was long term and largely a waste of a wonderful talent, but in November 1997 it’s pretty clear that they’re building the division around TAKA, who is in the ring against his opponents for much of the contest.

There’s a fundamental weirdness to this match, the Memphis studio-style babyface fire of Taylor and heel heat of Christopher mix strangely with their Japanese counterparts. TAKA is all natural charisma, but Tajiri has yet to find his edge as a character. Shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it makes perfect sense that Taylor and Christopher would start things off. Christopher and Taylor are, watching them work, two guys that seem both distinctly out of time and of it, if that makes any sense. Before a studio audience in Memphis, Christopher’s strutting and stalling would have a crowd seething—he’s the kind of wrestler you wish went through a territory in its prime. I hated watching them as a kid, but the opening exchange reminds me that I think Taylor and Christopher were and remain fairly underrated. They’re safe, exciting hands, and that’s why they’re in the ring introducing the crowd to the concept of “Light Heavyweights.”

The pair tag in their partners, and the tenor of the match changes. Of the four people involved, Tajiri has the least to do with the new division, but he looks impressive early on, tying TAKA up in a bow-and-arrow hold, sending the future champion out of the ring with a spinning heel kick, and nailing him with a beautiful Asai Moonsault. In three moves, you have what Japanese Super Juniors brought to the table: deft technical wrestling, hard strikes, and nimble acrobatics. TAKA responds with a massive springboard crossbody to the outside, and even if they’re sweetening the crowd in post (I usually can’t tell), it’s pretty clear that what these two men are able to do in the ring has the Tulsa crowd interested. TAKA is on point until a combination of Christopher’s cheapness ant Tajiri’s kicks put him down again.

Christopher is so good at his cocky, shitheel persona. He’s small compared to the majority of the WWF roster at the time, but he manages to fill up the room. Christopher’s ego gets the better of him, and his inability to communicate gets the better of Tajiri, and Scott Taylor puts his power mullet to work. Some of the stuff he tries works. Some of it doesn’t. He’s just there to give TAKA a breather before he comes in to finish Tajiri off with the Michinoku Driver, which was and remains one of my favorite finishing moves in wrestling.

This match may not seem like much, and there’s a sequence or two that are compromised by a language or style gap, but that difference in styles is exactly why I like it, and why I liked watching weekend wrestling shows in general. It was something new and different compared to the brawling at the top of the card, and it feels even more different now as the WWE pushes its homogenized wrestling style further and further away from anything that feels organic. The idea of a Cruiserweight or Light Heavyweight division in wrestling is less necessary now when guys like Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins are able to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, but they were a staple of B shows and will be a staple of this feature. In this kind of cosmic mismatch, you’re able to see something new as it’s being born. There’s something worthwhile about that, even if the end product as misunderstood and ultimately neglected by its promoter.

 

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