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Patrick Eire Retro Wrestling Matchguide: 1976-1979

Hello everyone and welcome to the latest edition of my retro matchguide. This time I take a look at some of the best matches from the period 1976-1979. In Japan, the wrestling scene continued to develop with Jumbo Tsuruta making a big name for himself in AJPW as United National Champion. Antonio Inoki continued to reign as NWF Champion in NJPW while Tatsumi Fujinami held the WWWF Junior Heavyweight Title. We also got our first AJW match available to watch with Jackie Sato defending her title against Monster Ripper. In a great period for mat wrestling in the USA Harley Race dominated the NWA, Nick Bockwinkel held the AWA World Heavyweight Title and Bob Backlund reigned as world champion while the WWWF transitioned into the WWF. In this Matchguide I recommend ten of the top matches from the era. There is also a YouTube playlist provided with all the matches that can be found there. All of the matches are listed in chronological order so without further ado, let’s get into the list!

1. Jumbo Tsuruta vs Giant Baba, AJPW 4th Champion Carnival - Day 27, 01/05/1976

Giant Baba was not only the founder of AJPW but also the top star in Japanese wrestling. He was the hero of AJPW in its early years. However, in those early years, he had one student in particular who showed the potential to be the next big star in AJPW. This student was Jumbo Tsuruta. Tsuruta had a couple of impressive outings before this for sure but, he was still waiting for that one big performance to truly announce himself as the next star of AJPW. This was his second singles meeting with his teacher and it gave him a chance to prove himself against the top star in the company.

The match is structured like a typical Giant Baba match but this time with the student vs teacher dynamic which adds some extra flavour. Tsuruta being the younger of the two tries to use his athleticism to gain the advantage, whereas Baba relies on his experience to ground Tsuruta. In the early stages, Tsuruta shows his impressive strength, hoisting Baba up for a fireman’s carry. Baba keeps the action on the mat at every opportunity where he can use his experience and nullify the athleticism of Tsuruta. Midway through the match, Tsuruta hits a piledriver but Baba has his foot under the ropes so the match continues. Early on in his career, Tsuruta trained with Dory Funk Jr in the USA and as the match went on you could see the Dory influence come out. Tsuruta aims for a butterfly suplex and at another point, he locks in Dory’s patented spinning toehold. The closing sequence sees some brilliant offence by Tsuruta as he hits a gutwrench suplex followed by the jumping knee strike that he would make famous. This is a fantastic student vs teacher match. The first great Tsuruta match I’ve seen and in my opinion the best ever AJPW match at the time.

Star rating: 4.25

Cagematch average: 7.5

Where to watch: Youtube

2. Jumbo Tsuruta vs Bill Robinson, AJPW Excite Series 1977 - Day 18, 11/03/1977

This match was for Robinson’s NWA United National Championship. This was a title that was defended previously in the JWA until its closure in 1973. It was famously held by Antonio Inoki and also Seiji Sakaguchi. In 1976 the title was revived in AJPW where Tsuruta beat Jack Brisco for the vacant championship. This was the first singles title of Tsuruta’s career. On the fifth of March 1977, Tsuruta lost his title to Bill Robinson via an O’Connor roll counter in a great match that is also included in the YouTube playlist. This best two out of three falls match just days later was a rematch for the championship. Unfortunately, around 20 minutes of this match were cut from the broadcast but there is still enough of it available to see how great it was.

The match features an aggressive start with Robinson going straight for his butterfly suplex but Tsuruta is able to escape. Soon after Robinson is able to hit a backdrop driver followed by a side suplex and goes for the cover but Tsuruta is able to get a foot on the rope. It was unusual to see big moves like this hit so early in a match during this time period. The unexpected start creates a great atmosphere. Robinson in particular is great at making everything feel like a real struggle. A fight where both men are doing everything in their power to gain the upper hand. After the first fall, the intensity rises as both men show that they are evenly matched. There is some fantastic technical wrestling in this stage of the match which sees some great unique submissions and pin attempts. There is a particularly impressive European clutch attempt from Robinson which leads to a near fall. Following the second fall, there are some great counters to each other's signature moves such as Tsuruta’s jumping knee and Robinson’s cobra twist. Both men are desperately trying to end the match before the time limit expires. This match just eclipses the previous one for me. We are seeing Tsuruta do battle with some of the most highly skilled veterans of the time and he is slowly becoming the best wrestler in the world. A fantastic match that is still worth checking out even with a chunk missing.

My star rating: 4.25

Cagematch: 7.83

Where to watch: Youtube

3. Harley Race vs Jerry Lawler, Continental Wrestling Association, 11/12/1977

We go to the USA for our next match where Harley Race put his NWA World Heavyweight Title on the line against hometown hero Jerry Lawler in front of 10,800 fans at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis. Race was wrestling a heavy schedule as NWA World Champion and Lawler renowned for his great stamina was looking to use that to his advantage by slowly wearing down the champion.

Lawler controls the early portion of the match with a side headlock slowly but surely wearing down the champion. Lawler’s strategy works as Race struggles to get much significant offence in the early stage of the match. Lawler decides to use his trust right fist to help him put down the champion to great effect despite the referee’s warnings. Race is able to turn the tide with a headbutt to the stomach and uses the headbutt many more times to stagger the challenger. Lawler remains in control for the vast majority of the match, however. Both men do a great job at selling the exhaustion as the thirty-minute mark passes. There is a great spot where Race keeps getting up for Lawler’s grounded punches, displaying his toughness. Lawler realises that time is running out and shifts into another gear. He hits Race with a body slam on the floor and sends him head-first into the ring bell. Race is going through hell as he desperately clings to his championship but the hometown hero just can’t keep him down for the three count. There is great drama created with Lawler sending Race over the top rope and the referee threatening to end the match with a disqualification. The match has a very dramatic ending with Race surviving a sleeper hold and near fall after fall. In my opinion, this is the best ever American wrestling match at the time helped by a deeply invested Memphis crowd.

My star rating: 4.5

Cagematch average: 10

Where to watch: YouTube

4. Ryuma Go vs Tatsumi Fujinami NJPW Summer Fight Series 1978 - Day 27

We now turn our attention to NJPW where Tatsumi Fujinami put his WWWF Junior Heavyweight Title on the line against Ryuma Go. This was the first title reign of Fujinami’s career and 1978 was the year when he really announced himself as a star with this reign. Ryuma Go was a man with a similar style and experience level that was going to put Fujinami to the test. This was exquisite fast-paced snug technical wrestling. A great junior heavyweight bout filled with intensity as each man tried to outwrestle the other. The match also clocks in at under 15 minutes making it one of the more digestible of the era if you’re not a fan of long matches. Not the best match of the era but one I would recommend.

My star rating: 4

Cagematch: 7.54

5. Nick Bockwinkel vs Jumbo Tsuruta, Big Time Wrestling, 14/02/1979

This match was a defence of Nick Bockwinkel’s AWA World Heavyweight Title in Honolulu Hawaii. Bockwinkel was one of if not the top heel of the era. He was a master of heel technical in-ring work. He wasn’t quite as flamboyant as other heels but he was still very proper and upper-class in character. At 28 years old Jumbo Tsuruta was one of the top rising stars in the industry. He was a multi-time Tag and United National Champion at this point but was still waiting for his first World Heavyweight Title.

This is probably the best babyface performance of Tsuruta’s career up to this point. The Hawaiian crowd were firmly behind him as Bockwinkel expertly played the heel role. This is a slow-paced technical grappling contest, one you should love if you’re into those sort of matches. There is great fire behind Jumbo’s offence as the crowd will him on to take the fight to the champion. Bockwinkel attacks the leg of Tsuruta aiming to set him up for the figure four and affect Tsuruta’s ability to pull off power moves. Tsuruta does a great job at selling the damage to his leg as the match progresses. This is the match where Tsuruta proved he was on the world championship level. He faced world champions before but always came up short. This time his performance was of somebody every bit as good as Bockwinkel.

My star rating: 4.25

Cagematch: 9.32

Where to watch: YouTube

6 Bob Backlund vs Greg Valentine, WWWF on MSG Network, 19/02/1979

This was a defence of Bob Backlund’s WWWF World Heavyweight Title. Backlund was a very popular technically gifted wrestler and Greg Valentine was one of the top rising heels in the country. Valentine was enjoying great success with the figure four leg lock at the time and promised to win with it but Backlund was confident he knew how to counter it.

This is one of the best matches of the decade. It goes long but it is good at keeping your attention for most of the match as everything feels important, like a struggle where the match could be won and lost at any time. The opening twenty minutes features some great technical wrestling. Backlund has some particularly beautiful counters to Valentine’s offence. As the match progresses there is a further emphasis on selling. Both men had to work very hard to get that little advantage in the match that would propel them to victory. This is the first true WWWF mat classic and probably the best work of either man’s career.

My star rating: 4.5

Cagematch: 9.32

Where to watch: WWE Network/Peacock

7 Bob Backlund vs Hussein Arab, WWF on MSG Network. 04/06/1979

We return to the now WWF World Heavyweight title reign of Bob Backlund as he puts his title on the line against Hussein Arab(better known today as the Iron Sheik). Hussein got this opportunity by winning a battle royal earlier that night and was a heat magnet in the Garden.

Hussein was accompanied to the ring by Captain Lou Albano who did an exceptional job at riling up the crowd creating a great atmosphere before the two competitors even touched. Backlund was the technically superior of the two which frustrates Hussein. Hussein tries to rely on his power to gain control but despite his smaller stature Backlund is able to pull off some impressive feats of strength himself. MSG is molten hot for this match which also features some great grappling, especially from Backlund. Backlund executes many leverage pins for some great near falls. The intensity rises when Hussein introduces a chair to the occasion striking Backlund and enraging the crowd. This is a match that I think holds up better than any other of the era, largely thanks to the great crowd control of both men. One of my favourite matches I’ve seen in my retro viewing and a real hidden gem.

My star rating: 4.75

Cagematch: 9.00

8. Jackie Sato vs Monster Ripper, AJW 13/09/1979

This is the first great women’s match I could find to watch in my retro viewing and of course, it comes from AJW. In this match, Jackie Sato put her WWWA World Title on the line against her larger opponent Monster Ripper. The work in between the ropes here wasn’t anything special but it was really effective. The investment from the crowd is what made this match great. Their reactions were insane all throughout the match as they were heavily invested in the victory of Jackie Sato as she battled her opponent. This match didn’t reach the heights that you would see of All Japan Women in the 80s and 90s but it was still great and worth a watch if you’re interested in wrestling from the time.

My star rating: 4

Cagematch: 8.38

Where to watch: YouTube

9. Antonio Inoki vs Bob Backlund, NJPW Toukon Series 1979 - Day 35, 06/12/1979

Our next match is a historic clash which saw Bob Backlund take on Antonio Inoki. Inoki was NWF Champion (the top title in NJPW) at the time and had also beaten Backlund for his WWF World Heavyweight Title the week before. Of course, this Inoki reign is not officially recognised by WWE but at the time Backlund went in with no title around his waist. This match features two of the most gifted professional wrestlers on the planet having a great wrestling contest. While not the best work of either man’s career it is still definitely worth watching if you’re a fan of the 70s style even discounting the historic factor.

My star rating: 4

Cagematch: 7.91

Where to watch: NJPW World

10. Abdullah The Butcher and The Sheik vs Dory Funk Jr and Terry Funk, AJPW Real World Tag League - Day 13, 13/12/1979

This was the fourth meeting between these two teams in AJPW and in their previous matches they had some of the wildest and bloodiest brawls that perhaps wrestling had ever seen. The record was 1-1-1 going into this match however both teams' victories came via dq. A definitive result was never found because when these two teams meet all hell breaks lose and nothing else was to be expected here. The previous performances also contributed to the Funks becoming a mega over tag team in AJPW with Abdullah and The Sheik being equally as hated creating a great atmosphere for this final battle.

The Funks make their entrance to an insane reaction. It was so loud that I actually turned the volume down on my tv. A hail of streamers were thrown into the ring giving it a really big match feel. While the ring announcer is still making his introductions Abdullah throws him out of the ring and the brawling begins. The Funks try to make it somewhat of a wrestling match at first but eventually embrace the fact that it’s a bloody brawl. Abdullah and The Sheik use their weapons at every opportunity enraging the crowd and causing the ring to quickly be littered with debris thrown in by the fans. Abdullah mutilates Terry with his fork in probably the most memorable part of the match. The selling from Terry is brilliant as Abdullah more than lives up to the “Butcher” moniker. This match was a crazy tag team match filled with pure carnage. A great way to cap off perhaps the greatest rivalry of the time period.

My star rating: 4.5

Cagematch: 9.05

Where to watch: YouTube

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