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Strange Austerity

People don’t get into wrestling as much as they grow acclimated to it, responding to in-ring action, personalities, promotions, match types, swaths of history, and outdated carny-speak jargon to the best of their ability, out of an enduring love for its atmosphere, its theater, its geometry. People on the outside wonder what the big deal is, and it can be difficult to convince anyone of the idea of combat as performance art, or of a soap opera with fights, or of the simple joy of an athletic display. But wrestling is a strange artform. It isn’t just odd in the way that overcooked WWE plotlines are, or in the idea of men in their underwear pretend-brawling: Sometimes, broken down to its purest elements, pro wrestling feels unlike any other art form on Earth.

On August 4, a match took place in Sendai’s Sun Plaza venue as part of a card ran by Japan's biggest promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling. This installment in NJPW’s G1 Climax summer tournament took place between Yuji Nagata, 47, and Tomohiro Ishii, 39.

In Daniel Bryan’s recent biography Yes!, the beloved WWE star mentions studying and admiring Nagata’s matches: “He didn't really do any fancy moves, but everything he did was believable and crisp; plus, he had a great fire, and the fans always got behind his matches.” It’s a solid distillation of Nagata’s work, a mix of shootfighting and Greco-Roman grappling that he’s perfected since his 1992 New Japan debut. Trained in the company's infamous dojo, he soon became a sure hand within NJPW, representing it to American audiences through World Championship Wrestling's television programs over '97 and '98, before returning to Japan and capturing his first title reign within the tag-team division.

Nagata challenged multiple times for the company's IWGP (the International Wrestling Grand Prix) heavyweight singles belt before finally winning it in 2002. He was the ace of the company and NJPW's champion, holding the title for a recor...