Once again I dive into the Retro Wrestling well in order to select my Top 10 Favourite Matches of 2004. The WWE had a very strong first third of 2004, with the company really delivering in the ring from January to April. NOAH and New Japan were also delivering some great action over in Japan, whilst ROH and TNA had plenty of good wrestling to offer as well. As a result some very good matches didn’t make the cut this week, but that’s a testament to how much good wrestling there was in 2004.
Triple H Vs Shelton Benjamin – Cincinnati, Ohio (29th March 2004)
Triple H had quite a good year in the ring in 2004, especially in comparison to the pretty lacklustre 2003 he had just delivered. Whether it be a mixture of bad booking, bad opponents, bad injuries or too much ego on his part, Triple H mostly stunk out the joint in 2003. Indeed, Triple H’s run with the World Title and feuds with the likes of Rob Van Dam, Kane, Scott Steiner, Booker, Kevin Nash and Goldberg is often referred to as the “Reign of Terror” due to just how bad most of the feuds were both from an in-ring and storyline perspective. However, in 2004 Triple H not only generally wrestled better opponents but he also deigned to lose a bit now and then as well, with this match with Shelton Benjamin ticking both of those boxes.
Benjamin had been a tag team wrestler with partner Charlie Haas prior to this bout, with the tandem being well respected for their in-ring abilities. With the Draft Lottery in early 2004, Benjamin found himself drafted to the Raw brand whilst Haas remained on Smackdown. Haas & Benjamin had been villains as a tag team, but now that they were separated the decision was made to go with Benjamin as a good guy and they did it in quite a clever way by having the young upstart refuse to back down from veteran meanie Triple H, leading to a match between the two on an episode of Raw. Triple H not only made Benjamin look good in the match itself by allowing Benjamin to out wrestle him and just generally show him up, but he also laid down for a three count as well just to give Benjamin the extra rub.
This match is almost perfect in the way that it is executed, as Triple H comes in all cocky to start but gets increasingly more frustrated and desperate when it becomes clear that the impetuous Benjamin isn’t going to just roll over and have his tummy tickled. It’s like a big side in the World Cup underestimating a team they deem to be beneath them only to end up with a bloody nose as a result. What made it all the better is that Triple H didn’t just crush Benjamin to get his win back the next week. It was a comparative long time before Triple H finally defeated Benjamin, and when he did it actually meant something and didn’t hurt Benjamin because he had already been established as someone who could hang with Triple H earlier in the year. I loved this match at the time and I still love it now.
Jushin Liger Vs Yoshinobu Kanemaru – Tokyo, Japan (10th July 2004)
This bout took place on Pro Wrestling NOAH’s first ever show at the cavernous Tokyo Dome, with the story being that New Japan wrestler Liger was the current Junior Heavyweight Champion and Kanemaru was attempting to win it back for the home promotion. Liger was excellent during his trips to NOAH, as the fact he was an outsider to the group allowed him to cut loose from his usual good guy persona and instead be an absolute jerk for a change. Like most wrestlers who often found themselves in the role of being the hero, Liger embraced the opportunity to be an evil bastard with both hands and it often led to good matches.
Kanemaru still wrestles to this day, for New Japan ironically, but his style is drastically different these days with him often having to resort to cheap villainous shortcuts in order to keep his matches interesting. Back in 2004 though Kanemaru was one of the most exciting wrestlers in the business, combining slick technical wrestling skills with exciting high-flying offence and regularly having great matches in the Junior Heavyweight division. Kanemaru isn’t afraid to try and match Liger’s snide behaviour either, even going as far as to grab at Liger’s trademark mask at one stage in an effort to tear it off.
The big turning point where the bout goes from being good to being excellent is when Liger gives Kanemaru a big powerbomb on the floor, with Kanemaru only just managing to beat the 20 count back into the ring at the count of 19. Liger being so willing just to take the count out win and Kanemaru fighting so bravely to get back in before the count completes really gets the crowd invested in the bout and they are well behind Kanemaru for the remainder, especially when Kanemaru keeps kicking out of big moves back inside the ring. Sometimes the lighter weight wrestlers struggle to garner a reaction when wrestling at the Tokyo Dome, but these two men tore the house down and the match remains one of my favourites to this day.
Hiroyoshi Tenzan Vs Yuji Nagata – Tokyo, Japan (15th February 2004)
Tenzan had managed to finally win the IWGP Heavyweight Title (New Japan’s top belt) in 2003, but he had quickly lost it to Super Rookie Shinsuke Nakamura. This seemed like a very odd decision as the fans were ready to get behind Tenzan and Nakamura was still learning his craft and wasn’t really ready to be the top guy in the promotion. If that wasn’t bad enough, New Japan soon had to take the belt away from Nakamura when injuries suffered in an MMA fight (This was during the period where New Japan would put their wrestlers into real fights because Antonio Inoki was obsessed with shoot fighting) were exacerbated in a bout with Yoshihiro Takayama, forcing Nakamura to take time off to heal.
A one night tournament was set up for the belt, with Tenzan and Nagata both being entered. The two were scheduled to meet one another in the Semi-Final stage of the tournament in a bout that ended up being quite controversial due to the adlibbed finish that took place. Tenzan had been cut open in his Quarter Final fight with Kensuke Sasaki, and the cut opened up once again as Tenzan did battle with Nagata. The cut was soon leaking like a faucet in a gory visual, but Tenzan bravely kept fighting on and earned the appreciation of the crowd in the process. Both men entered strong performances here though, and both deserve credit for making the match so good.
What ended up proving so controversial was that the planned finish of Nagata winning had to be changed due to Nagata legitimately getting knocked out. Tenzan would use the Moonsault on special occasions, and seeing as the IWGP Title was up for grabs here he decided to bust it out. However, Tenzan’s aim was slightly off and he ended up bashing Nagata in the head with his knee, legitimately knocking Nagata out as a result, meaning that the referee had to count Nagata down and give Tenzan the victory. Thankfully Nagata ended up being okay, but New Japan had to think on their feet and change the booking plans so that Tenzan went on to win the Title.
Despite the uncomfortable nature of the finish, this match is still excellent up to that point, with Tenzan in particular just knocking it out of the park with his brave battling of the blood loss in a quest to regain his belt. In some ways I’m almost glad the finish went awry as it meant we got to see Tenzan win the Title again and Nagata ended up being okay, although the way we eventually got there was certainly harrowing.
Randy Orton Vs Mick Foley – Edmonton, Alberta (18th April 2004)
This match came with a truckload of backstory, as Orton had first clashed with Foley in the summer of 2003 when he had beaten Foley up in a stairwell and then kicked him down the steps in a brutal display of viciousness. What made the feud great was that they didn’t just have Foley show up the next week and clobber Orton. Instead they spent a long time building up to the bout, with Foley even doubting himself and walking out on a match with Orton at one stage because he wasn’t sure he could win. It was excellent storytelling and was all building to Foley finally snapping and tapping into the more extreme elements of his persona by the time this bout came along.
Foley delivered some excellent interviews to build this match up, whilst Orton was also great at his end as well by getting the across the idea that he was worried about what this now crazed madman was going to try and do to him in their climactic bout. In a lot of ways this feud shared some similarities with Foley’s 2000 feud with Triple H, with Orton having to tap into a side of himself that the fans hadn’t previously seen in order to survive with the maniacal and dangerous Foley. Orton got absolutely destroyed in this one, not only getting busted open but also getting flung back first onto drawing pins in one of the more gruesome visuals of 2004.
The match wasn’t just violence for violence’s sake either though, as it told a good story of Foley tapping into his more dangerous side to really up the ante, whilst Orton had to dig deep to a part of himself he didn’t even know was there when faced with an environment and motivated foe that he couldn’t previously have conceived. The Edmonton crowd played a big part in making the match so enjoyable as well, as they were transfixed by the brutality and clearly wanted Foley to pick up the victory, leading to them biting numerous times when it came to the near falls. The match not only delivered huge amounts of drama and excitement but it also achieved its goal of making Orton a bigger star when all was said and done with, which was a testament not just to him but also to Foley for doing his job the right way.
Brock Lesnar Vs Eddy Guerrero – Daly City, California (15th Feburary 2004)
This match was the culmination of Eddy Guerrero becoming a surprising breakout star of the Smackdown brand in 2003, with the Hispanic and Latino audience especially getting behind Guerrero. Guerrero’s “Lie, Cheat and Steal” character initially earmarked him as a bad guy, but Guerrero was so charming and entertaining in the role that it soon led to the fans getting behind him. It helped that Guerrero regularly outsmarted his opponents and came out on top a lot of the time, which naturally made fans want to support him, because who doesn’t like to back a winner? However, it always felt like that Guerrero would have a ceiling in WWE due to his size.
Though Guerrero was very muscular and had a prize winning physique, he was still very short by the standards of the time when it came to the size obsessed WWE, and for that reason it felt like he would never reach the pinnacle of being WWE Champion in the promotion. However, as 2003 rolled into 2004, Guerrero remained a very popular figure amongst the fan base at large, and with WWE looking to book a bout between WWE Champ Brock Lesnar and Goldberg, it was decided that they would switch the belt to Guerrero in front of a largely Latino crowd in California in order to free Lesnar up for his big WrestleMania bout with Goldberg.
What followed was an excellent contest, as Lesnar used his size to maul Guerrero at multiple opportunities whilst Guerrero bravely clung on and kept fighting back. Both Lesnar and Guerrero were fantastic at playing their respective roles, with Lesnar playing the overbearing bullying bigger wrestler to aplomb whilst Guerrero was the archetypal gutsy underdog fighting from underneath. What really helped the bout was how invested the crowd was, as they really wanted Guerrero to win and it gave the match a superb atmosphere. The finish was also exceedingly well done also, as Goldberg did indeed get involved but Guerrero still won the bout due to his own actions when he countered Lesnar’s F-5 move into a DDT before heading up for a Frog Splash.
I was a big fan of Guerrero’s at the time of this show and deep down I wasn’t sure that he would be able to win the bout, so when he did I was utterly thrilled and it remains one of my all-time favourite wrestling memories. It was also the perfect end to Guerrero’s story of redemption, as he went from being fired from the promotion in 2001 due to his personal demons to sobering up and earning his job back and then eventually ascending to the top of the mountain as WWE Champion.
Kenta Kobashi Vs Yoshihiro Takayama – Tokyo, Japan (25th April 2004)
Kenta Kobashi had an excellent year in 2003 and he kept that momentum going into 2004, where he continued to have great matches as NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Champion. This battle with Yoshihiro Takayama at Tokyo’s Budokan Hall was one of the better ones Kobashi took part in during a stellar year for the Japanese Legend. Takayama had become a genuine mainstream star in 2002 following a brutal MMA fight with Don Frye. Takayama had been beaten to bloody pulp in that fight, but he had also shown immense bravery to keep fighting back even though he was wildly outmatched against the far superior Frye.
In Japan it is sometimes better to lose with honour than it is to win, as Takayama’s brave efforts made him a star even in defeat and it led to him becoming a key player not just for NOAH but for New Japan as well. Kobashi Vs Takayama had been a match that NOAH had wanted to put on for a while, but Takayama had been receiving a big push in New Japan, a push which included him winning their World Title, so it just wasn’t possible for NOAH to put the bout together even though their fans really wanted to see it. By the April 2004 Budokan show though there were no more obstacles standing in the way and the match was booked to great fanfare, selling out the building as a result.
The match itself did not disappoint either, as it contained all of the heavy hitting action you would expect from Kobashi and Takayama, with a satisfying finishing stretch establishing Kobashi as a deserving Champion whilst still maintaining Takayama’s status as a top competitor at the same time. Some of Kobashi’s selling in this bout is excellent, as few wrestlers can convey the mixture of pain and defiance like he can. Kobashi firing up and powering through the pain in order to pick up the eventual victory is very well done and the crowd responds in kind.
The amazing thing is that this wasn’t even my favourite Kobashi match in 2004, but we’ll get to that one later on.
Triple H Vs Shawn Michaels Vs Chris Benoit – Madison Square Garden (14th March 2004)
Chris Benoit’s pursuit of the World Title in 2004 had a very good start as he was booked to last all the way in the Royal Rumble match, last eliminating the Big Show in an impressive display of tactical nous on his part. However, once Benoit was moved to the Raw brand to challenge Triple H he ended up getting shunted into the role of third banana behind Triple H and Shawn Michaels. Each week WWE seemingly flattened Benoit out more and more by making him look tertiary to the two “real” top stars on the Raw brand.
Despite all that, when Benoit walked out at WrestleMania XX to challenge for the Title along with Michaels against Triple H, he was treated as the crowd favourite by the Madison Square Garden audience and it led to a fantastic atmosphere to the Title bout. Michaels was normally cheered by the WWE audience, but he was roundly booed at this event because the fans were all backing Benoit so much, with the crowd erupting whenever Benoit prevented Michaels from picking up the victory. The actual wrestling in this bout really was excellent, with all three guys delivering on the night and the hot crowd really pushing the match over the line as a WrestleMania classic.
Sadly this match and the show closing moment of Benoit and Guerrero celebrating together has been tarnished somewhat by the tragic deaths of both men, but at the time it was a real feel good moment to see two perennially overlooked wrestlers finally get their moment in the sun. In some ways this was the perfect way to end the 20th WrestleMania event as it should have signalled a shift in the philosophy in WWE where wrestlers would be pushed based on ability to connect with the audience first over the cosmetic aspect of the business, but sadly that wasn’t to be. For a brief moment though, it was possible for wrestling fans to believe anything was possible.
Kenta Kobashi Vs Jun Akiyama – Tokyo, Japan (10th July 2004)
Kobashi and Akiyama had faced one another in big matches before both in All Japan and NOAH, but this bout was probably their most famous battle due to it taking place in front of a huge crowd at the iconic Tokyo Dome arena. Kobashi was riding high as the GHC Heavyweight Champion and Akiyama was a very believable challenger who could have conceivably won the Title, so the match was intriguing both because it would surely be a well wrestled contest but the result was also up in the air, thus adding to the drama in the closing stages.
Once both men got in the ring they completely delivered on the promise the match had as well, with the closing stages leaving the crowd in raptures, especially when Akiyama unloaded all the big weaponry in his arsenal in an effort to keep Kobashi down for a count of three. Kobashi was excellent as always when it came to making his challenger look good whilst not making himself look weak, a skill that is essential for every top class World Champion to have. Akiyama really carried his end of things as well, looking smooth and assured in the ring like the pro he was and still is.
There is a common belief that Akiyama should have won this contest, as losing hurt his standing as the next potential top guy, but I can understand the logic in having Kobashi retain here. Akiyama had already previously been the Champion, so it’s not like a win would have “made” him here. It was always going to be the smarter play to try and use the eventual Title change to help make a star of someone who hadn’t yet won the Title, which is what NOAH tried with Takeshi Rikio in 2005. It didn’t end up working, but it was worth a punt. Akiyama certainly wasn’t hurt by this contest as his performance was so good and the match itself was so great that both men ended up coming out of it looking strong.
Samoa Joe Vs CM Punk – Chicago, Illinois (16th October 2004)
Kenta Kobashi wasn’t the only wrestler enjoying a long successful World Title run in 2003 and 2004, as Samoa Joe was tearing it up as the top guy over in ROH, having memorable feuds with the likes of Christopher Daniels and Homicide. Another feud that captured wrestling fan’s imaginations during this period was Joe’s series of matches with CM Punk. The two first met for the belt back in June of 2004 at a show in Dayton, with the match ending in a draw when the 60 minute time limit assigned to the bout expired. The contest was so good though that it left fans wanting more, which set the table for a rematch in Chicago.
The big difference when it came to the second match though was that it took place in Chicago, which was Punk’s hometown and somewhere where he was incredibly popular. This ensured that the bout would have an excellent atmosphere, with the amassed crowd desperate to see Punk wrest the Title from Joe’s waist. Joe did not face an entirely hostile crowd here, as there were pockets of the crowd who were still behind him, but the majority of the crowd was on Team Punk, which meant the audience was invested throughout the contest. Both men gradually built the match up as well, starting out on the mat and then patiently putting more pressure on the throttle as the bout progressed.
The bout told a really good story as well, with Punk controlling things on the mat for lots of the early going in order to frustrate Joe and establish that he had the technical acumen to nullify Joe if given the chance to execute such a game plan. Joe eventually got back into the contest though, leading to Punk getting to display his great ability to sell a beating. The match eventually built to both men throwing chops and kicks at one another, with the intensity gradually increasing and the crowd continuing to be invested in the action. In a lot of ways this match remains one of the best examples in how to build a long match whilst telling a good story and keeping the crowd engrossed.
This match was widely well received, to the point that noted wrestling writer Dave Melzter bestowed a coveted Five Star rating upon it, which didn’t happen that much back then, especially for companies like ROH who didn’t have the big production values and mainstream appeal in their respective nations of promotions such as WWE, New Japan and NOAH. I personally feel such a rating was warranted though, as this match was not only a great dramatic contest but it also featured excellent wrestling and a truly fantastic crowd who were into everything both wrestlers did in there. If you haven’t seen any of Punk’s pre-WWE or AEW work, then this match would be a great place to start!
Christopher Daniels and Elix Skipper Vs Chris Harris and James Storm – Orlando, Florida (5th December 2004)
These two teams appeared on the 2003 list when they took part in a famous cage match in NWA:TNA. Amazingly, the two tandems managed to raise the bar even higher when they went at it in a cage once again at the end of 2004. I had sort of given up on TNA prior to this, as it was difficult to keep up with the product due to how far behind we were in the UK and the weekly TNA events had started losing their lustre for me. However, when TNA moved to Orlando in 2004 to start the Impact Era I decided to give them another look, with this match playing a big part in getting me into the product again.
The big stipulation coming into this one was that the losing team would have to split up, which added some extra stakes to things and really upped the intensity. TNA had made no secret of the fact they saw potential in Harris as a singles star as well, with him receiving shots at the NWA Title earlier in the year, so the result was somewhat up in the air as there was always a chance that TNA might split Harris and Storm up so that they could give Harris the much vaunted singles push. What followed was a fantastic bout, filled with blood, drama and incredible high-flying offence from Skipper.
Skipper’s walk along the top of the cage to do a rana back down into the ring was a sequence played over and over again, and the reaction it garnered from the crowd could still be one of the biggest crowd reactions TNA/IMPACT has enjoyed to this day. It would be unfair to remember the match just for that move though, as the rest of the contest is excellent as well. From start to finish it remains one of the best matches TNA/IMPACT has ever put on, as both teams empty their arsenal in a quest to become the surviving tandem. And ultimately the winners survive more than anything else, with the finishing move being suitably poetic.
This match is currently uploaded to IMPACT Wrestling’s YouTube channel (although the video quality is pretty awful for some reason) and I strongly suggest checking it out if you’ve never done so before. To this day there have been few matches in the company’s history that has managed to combine drama, storytelling and pulsating action in the way this bout does. When it came to making the 2004 list, #1 was never in doubt!