At this point, if you aren’t paying attention to New Japan Pro Wrestling, you probably never will. And that’s your loss, because you’re missing something truly special. Especially if you are one of the many fans disenfranchised with the national television wrestling scene in the United States. A compelling alternative is directly below your nose, and if you are willingly ignoring it, well, it’s hard to feel bad for you if you don’t like what you see on Monday & Thursday nights.
New Japan’s “Invasion Attack” not only continued the run of flat out amazing iPPV offerings from New Japan, but it also continued the string of producing “…that was the best *BLANK* i’ve ever seen!” moments. Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer says the Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Minoru Suzuki match from October’s “King of Pro Wrestling” show may have been the best match he’s ever seen. Many agreed. The show itself was the runaway winner of Best Show of 2012 in just about every credible poll, and drew legit buzz as possibly the best pro wrestling show of all time. It took New Japan a scant three months to top itself, as January’s “WrestleKingdom VII” was even better, seemingly locking up Best Show of 2013 four days into the year and drawing universal praise from many as the next ‘greatest show of all time’.
And now “Invasion Attack”, which will steal Best Show of the Year votes from “WrestleKingdom”, and produced a match that many are buzzing is the best match they’ve ever seen. I’m not sure Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada IV was that good, but roughly two days after my buzz has worn off, i’m having trouble coming up with a match I think was better.
No matter. There may be no point trying to sort that out. Because at this rate, New Japan will simply top itself again very shortly.
1. IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles – Time Splitters (Alex Shelley & KUSHIDA) (c) vs Apollo 55 (Prince Devitt & Ryusuke Taguchi)
A hot match from the start, which was the tip off that they weren’t given a ton of time. But with these two teams, it doesn’t matter. Everything clicked here, as all four men were on the top of their games. I was particularly impressed with Shelley’s selling. Time Splitters hit all of their signature stuff, some of which is recognizable if you’ve seen Shelley’s work with his other partner, Chris Sabin, over the years. The finish came when KUSHIDA used a rolling reverse cradle (with bridge) on Taguchi. But the big news, was the post match, as the Splitters tried to play peacemaker as Devitt verbally ran down Taguchi for losing the fall. Devitt laid out his partner, and then the returning King Fale (decked out in a suit & tie) helped him lay out the Splitters as well. Devitt announced that Apollo 55 was dead, and Fale, who had dropped off the planet for the last year or so on excursion with an obscure California indie, was his new “bouncer”. Devott rode off on Fale’s shoulders, flipping off the crowd. Tremendous execution of the turn that can’t be described properly with words. Devitt is poised for a huge heel run. ****
2. Akebono, Super Strong Machine, Manabu Nakanishi, Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs Bob Sapp, YOSHI-HASHI, Tomohiro Ishii, Takashi Iizuka
The usual multi man tag, which can usually be counted on as the worst match on any big New Japan show, but this was a surprise. YOSHI-HASHI was as useless as ever (it’s nearly impossible to believe that this guy was on the same level as Kazuchika Okada last January), but everybody else worked hard and the match was good. Even when Sapp was in, things didn’t slow down, thanks in large part to the hard working Akebono, who is sneaky good and one of the better big men in the world. Nakanishi pinned YOSHI-HASHI following his top rope tomahawk chop. ***1/4
3. CMLL World Tag Team Titles – Tama Tonga & El Terrible (c) vs La Mascara & Valiente
Tama Tonga is really starting to find his stride, thanks to long excursions to Mexico. No promotion on the planet takes advantage of excursions like New Japan. Aside from giving young wrestlers valuable experience in different styles in front of different crowds, it also keeps the faces fresh. I’ve always enjoyed the work of Mascara & Valiente, two of my favorites from CMLL. Terrible, not so much. But he was good here. Everybody was. Lucha can be sloppy, and when things fall apart it can be flat out terrible (no pun intended), but this was a fine match and should not be skipped, even if you aren’t a big lucha fan. ***
4. Tomoaki Honma & Togi Makabe vs Masato Tanaka & Yujiro Takahashi
This was a nice surprise, but shouldn’t have been. This match really speaks to the depth of the New Japan roster. Tanaka is great, Takahashi has good heel charisma and always works hard, Makabe is the respected veteran brawler, and Honma, who was exiled for a year for supposedly having Yakuza connections, is back on the roster and in tremendous shape. He looks like a different person, and was tremendous here. His selling was elite level. Tanaka picked up the fall, pinning Honma following a Sliding D. Ended up being the sleeper match on the show. ***1/2
5. Minoru Suzuki vs Toru Yano
This was incredible. Essentially an extended squash, with Yano getting a few hope spots here and there, but basically Suzuki throttling him like a machine. The two heel factions, Suzuki-Gun & CHAOS, are at war, so there was plenty of wackiness going on outside the ring. This match was showcase for Suzuki, who over the last year has gone from a respected worker to a true top level elite star. He conveys a real level of danger that has not been approached since the heyday of Bruiser Brody. There isn’t a monster heel or bully brawler on the planet, not Lesnar, not Henry, not New Jack, not Bully Ray, who gets himself over as a legit badass at the level Suzuki does. He won this with the Gotch Piledriver, but didn’t stop there. He full mounted Yano and pounded him with strikes, while the injured Taichi (swinging his crutch) held off the young lions who tried to make the save. He then beat up the young lions, existed the ring, and then beat up a few more, before laying out Yano AGAIN with his GHC Tag Title belt (Yano is one half of the tag team champions in Pro Wrestling NOAH). A wild scene that made Suzuki look like the most dangerous man alive, very effectively setting him up as the next IWGP title challenger. ****
6. Hirooki Goto & Yuji Nagata vs Katsuyori Shibata & Kazushi Sakuraba
I didn’t like this. The Laughter 7 shooter stuff is very hit or miss for me, and this was a miss. Nagata was working hard and seemed to be highly motivated, but the match ended prematurely when Sakuraba legit injured his elbow. The ref immediately stepped in and ended the match, as it appeared to be a dislocation. The match never really got going. The key moving forward is to play the injury into the storyline. **
7. NWA World Heavyweight Championship – Rob Conway (c) vs Satoshi Kojima
Many feel this was the worst match on the show, due to the liberal interference from Conway’s bodyguard Jax Dane. Conway was also accompanied by NWA President Bruce Tharpe, who cut a fantastic video promo to kick off this “Invasion”, and was really great here, as the camera kept cutting to him at ringside looking nervous and shamelessly rooting for Conway. Kojima’s tag partner, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, really looked like a fool as Conway’s massive bodyguard continually attacked Kojima on the outside. Finally, Tenzan made the save towards the end of the match. Conway picked up the win, and despite the cries on twitter of the liberal American style bullshit and interference, this match got over well in Sumo Hall and the idea that these invaders are American style cheating heels clearly adds to the storyline. I liked it better than most people did, because it was different. Conway, Tharpe, and the bodyguard hamming it up post match added to the vibe. It looks like they’re setting up a tag match, plus i’ve been told that the feud is going to be a long term deal with matches on both continents. **1/2
8. IWGP Intercontinental Title – Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs Davey Boy Smith Jr
Another match in the CHAOS vs Suzuki-Gun feud, this one was set up when Smith Jr upset Nakamura in the New Japan Cup tournament. Nakamura also successfully defended the title against Smith’s partner, Lance Archer, a few months back. Nakamura has elevated this title from a lower mid card title to an upper card prize that the fans care about. Essentially, Masato Tanaka’s NEVER Title has replaced the Intercontinental Title as the undercard belt that the mid carders battle over. For me, this was a key match for Smith, who has done very well in tags, but needed a strong singles match to break out. It’s very easy to get lost in the shuffle of this super deep roster, and keep in mind that people like Tetsuya Naito & Karl Anderson will soon be returning. Smith delivered, but time will tell if he can move up. It’s a numbers game right now. Nakamura was his usual self, with his unique charisma that really makes him a babyface despite technically being a heel. The obvious long term direction is a Nakamura/Okada feud over who is the true ace of CHAOS. Nakamura hit two Boma Ye’s, one of the springboard variety, and one traditional, to score the pin. Very good match. ***3/4
9. IWGP Heavyweight Title – Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) vs Katsuchika Okada
This was match number four between the two, and the bar was set very high. Tanahashi was 2-1 coming in, after his last successful defense over Okada at WrestleKingdom. That finish was controversial, as many fans figured the biggest show of the year was the perfect time for Okada to win back the title and assume the role of ace, but looking back it was the right move. It made Okada “work” to earn another title shot, which he did by winning New Japan Cup. It also allowed Okada to drop a key singles match to Minoru Suzuki, another booking decision panned by some, but one that looks brilliant now as Suzuki looks very strong coming into his title shot with a win over Okada and a slaughter over Yano.
This match was brilliant in every way. These two men have undeniable chemistry, which was patently obvious after their first encounter. The workrate, as expected, was great. The storytelling was of the charts. Tanahashi was working over the right arm early on, which immediately made you think he was attempting to weaken the Rainmaker. Okada’s selling was superb. As in, hall of fame level superb. His facials, the way he kept trying to “shake out the damage” with his arm, and then the subtle switching of his elbow pad from his left arm to his right arm. Great, great stuff. The lone blown spot, and attempted Cattle Mutilation type hold by Okada, was saved by a great facial expression that said “Haha, I FINALLY got it!” when he was finally was able to lock in. Instead of taking fans out of the match, it ended up being a pretty cool little moment where Okada connected with the crowd. Only the greats can pull that off.
One trademark of the Tanahashi run of great matches, is his ability to make everything mean something. There are no throwaway moments in a big Tanahashi match. Four matches against Okada, all great, all different. The story here, was dammit, i’m NOT getting beat with that Rainmaker, even if it means I have to destroy this man’s arm to prevent it from happening. And after kicking out of one attempt, he had me believing he would survive Okada again, despite me being 99% certain Okada was winning the title back before the match. During the final stretch, a picture perfect Dragon Suplex, had me completely buying a Tanahashi win.
But in the end, the right man won. Unlike the first Okada victory over Tanahashi, which was shocking and put him on the map, this win, followed by winning G1 and winning New Japan Cup, places the 24-year old Okada firmly in the ace seat. Now, he has a chance to get revenge on Suzuki, who nobody will underrate as a challenger this time around like they did when he challenged Tanahashi at “King of Pro Wrestling”, and a win will further cement his new status. This match was also the first of the four Tanahashi/Okada matches where you felt like Okada carried more weight than Tanahashi and was the star of the match. Perhaps that’s cloak & dagger credit to the great Tanahashi, knowing this was an important step in establishing Okada on this new level.
This, was a pro wrestling masterpiece. *****