It wasn’t going to last forever.
New Japan’s historic run of amazing shows came to an end with last week’s ‘Wrestling Dontaku’, the yearly big show offering from Fukuoka.
In contrast to the last New Japan iPPV, ‘Invasion Attack’, which was held helped by a rabid American style crowd at Sumo Hall, this show suffered from not only a slate of underwhelming matches, but also a tepid (albeit sellout) crowd of 6800 fans. Fukuoka crowds have never been known to be the hottest on the New Japan circuit, but the matches themselves didn’t help matters.
The show wasn’t bad. This was a perfectly average iPPV, but when you are dealing with a bar that has been set to historical highs due to a nearly 15-month run of flat out incredible big shows, “perfectly average” is chalked up as a major disappointment. It’s all about perspective. Had this been a NOAH or TNA show, the tone of this article would be quite different, and i’d likely be praising it as the best offering in recent memory.
The show featured a legitimate 4-star main event world title match, but the match was a notch below the usual New Japan world title match standards. Hiroshi Tanahashi delivered a very entertaining match against Karl Anderson, but again, Tanahashi’s bar has been to deliver classics or near classics every time out. A fun junior tag opened things up, but we’ve seen better from those guys in the past. Shinsuke Nakamura was on the cusp of delivering another great match, but the bout fell apart badly in the final minute resulting in a flat finish. Top to bottom, it was a night of falling just short of the high New Japan standards.
What saves the show from being completely skippable, was several newsworthy events. We had two title changes, both of which were pretty surprising. Tetsuya Naito announced his return. The Best of the Super Juniors field was revealed. Prince Devitt’s heel stable expanded. Kazuchika Okada finally defeated Minoru Suzuki, and his next challenger was set (Togi Makabe).
All told, when you have a show with two title changes, a major heel turn, the return of an injured superstar, and a 4-star world title main event, and it’s considered disappointing, what does that say about the overall state of the promotion? New Japan is still on fire, but the run of amazing, historically great shows wasn’t going to last forever. Let’s lower that bar a bit and get ready for June.
1. Yuji Nagata, Jushin Liger, Tiger Mask, & Maximo vs Tomohiro Ishii, YOSHI-HASHI, Gedo, & Jado – Your standard multi man dark match opener. Which by the way, we should probably stop calling these “dark” matches. These are always shown for free to the iPPV audience, similar to WWE pre show matches. This was good when Ishii was in with Nagata. Maximo did his effeminate routine, and it got over. Liger, a bonafide legend who is always protected in these types of matches, scored the pin with a Thesz Press. Nothing special, but it held my attention better than some of these types of matches do. Nagata comedy facials and bailing out as Maximo tried to kiss him after the match was a lot of fun. Nagata is underrated as an all around performer. **
2. IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles – Time Splitters (Alex Shelley & KUSHIDA) (c) vs Forever Hooligans (Rocky Romero & Alex Kozlov) – Good match, but both of these teams have had much better. Long heat spot on Shelley was the meat of the match. Time Splitters made the comeback with all of their cool double team spots. It looked like the champs would retain, but the Hooligans hit KUSHIDA with the Contract Killer to score the surprise win and take the titles back. ***
3. Prince Devitt & Bad Luck Fale vs Ryusuke Taguchi & Capt. New Japan – You haven’t been a wrestling fan very long if you couldn’t spot the finish of this one. Devitt, with his new “bouncer” (i.e., bodyguard), the returning Bad Luck (King) Fale, taking on Devitt’s former long time tag partner, and Captain New Japan, the New Japan babyface mascot character who Devitt has been torturing for months to get heat. Fale, perhaps be design, had new ring gear that resembled “Big Daddy Cool” Diesel. Devitt was wearing a Chris Jericho inspired ring jacket with lights. This was short, and designed to get the new heels over strong. Taguchi had one brief run of comeback spots. The finish was Fale lifting Capt New Japan up like a chokeslam, but then using a thumb thrust to the throat on the way down. Pretty cool move. Fale carried Devitt out on his shoulders after the match. Looks like they may skip the Devitt-Taguchi feud and move Devitt right into a major program. More on that later. **1/2
4. IWGP Tag Team Titles – Killer Elite Squad (Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith Jr) (c) vs Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima vs Toru Yano & Takashi Iizuka vs Manabu Nakanishi & Strongman – This was not good. I got the sense that most of the people involved were not experienced enough in this type of match, and it resulted in a clusterfuck. I also don’t get the title switch. KES was gaining momentum as the best team in the world, and we’ve clearly been there, done that with Tenzan & Kojima as champions. I will give this the benefit of the doubt, because when New Japan booking produces some head scratching lately, it usually ends up making sense in the bigger picture. The obvious feeling I get is that they are using TenKoji as transitional champs to get the titles to Devitt & Fale. Maybe Archer or Smith (or both) have a singles push in the cards. Curious to see it play out. As for the match, it was an organized mess, if there is such a thing. It wasn’t terrible, but you’ve seen this match on RAW a million times. KES once again killed TenKoji with Killer Bombs, and Kojima scored the pin on Strongman, so it’s interesting that KES didn’t put over the new champs at all. The running story is that they always dominate Tenzan & Kojima, and that story was kept alive despite the title change. **
5. IWGP NEVER Openweight Title – Masato Tanaka (c) vs Tomoaki Honma – This was nowhere close to the match of the year contender that these two put together in December 2011. That 2011 match was for the Intercontinental title, while this one was for the NEVER belt, which is the title for lower mid carders now that the Intercontinental title has been elevated by the great Nakamura title run. This was never going to match the 2011 bout because they weren’t going to get 30 minutes. They worked hard, but the short match combined with a tepid crowd produced a disappointing match. The big spot was Tanaka splashing Honma through a table on the outside. Tanaka retained with the Sliding D. I’d like to see this feud continue, and i’d like to see this match headline a small show and be given some time. I really like having Honma back in New Japan. **3/4
6. Yujiro Takahashi vs Togi Makabe – Squash. This was used to set up Makabe as the next IWGP title challenger. He won with the King Kong Knee Drop off the top. Nothing to this. **
Intermission was eventful. The Best of the Super Juniors field was announced, and the field is loaded. Outsiders include Ricochet (Dragon Gate), Kenny Omega (DDT), Titan (CMLL), and freelancers Trent Barretta (working here as “Barretta”) & Brian Kendrick, along with all of the New Japan regulars.
Tetsuya Naito cut a promo, announcing his return on 6/22, where he will face former tag partner (anybody remember No Limit’s TNA run? No? Oh well…) Yujiro Takahashi, the man who (according to storyline) injured his knee and put him out of action for nearly ten months.
Satoshi Kojima joined the commentary team during intermission, and he is one of those guys who looks fine in the ring but looks OLD AS FUCK in street clothes. Like, grandfatherly old. Get that man some hip clothes, and somebody tell him to leave the bifocals in the lockerroom. Not good.
7. Hirooki Goto vs Katsuyori Shibata – I hated this. Hate is a strong word. I just don’t get Shibata or understand what the fuss is all about with this guy. Part of it is his style, which admittedly is not my cup of tea, but I just never enjoy his stuff. He’s going to keep being pushed, probably even harder than he already is, so I guess I have to get used to seeing him. Goto is the classic work-to-the-level-of-his-opponent guy. Since I don’t like Shibata, well, you can see where this is going. Match didn’t work for me at all. Work was fine, I was just bored. They did a double KO finish. I like stuff like that when done sparingly. So the finish helped the match, at least for me. **1/4
8. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Karl Anderson – I figured Anderson would win this, which would serve two masters. One, Anderson would be elevated. Two, Tanahashi, with two straight major singles loses, could do the “work from the bottom” gimmick and be moved out of the title picture for a while to let Okada breath. What they did was better. Tanahashi won clean with the High Fly Flow. Short match, not even close to their previous singles match a few months ago, but working third from the top Tanahashi understands that his role is different. This is what makes him the best worker in the world right now. But the post match angle is the story here. Devitt & Fale hit the ring, along with Tama Tonga, as Anderson turned on Tanahashi and the four put a beating on him. Devitt, Fale, Tonga, and Anderson, now known as “The Bullet Club”, are an all gaijin heel faction, and they looked really awesome together here. Tanahashi vs Devitt has the potential to be a fantastic feud. ***1/2
9. IWGP Intercontinental Title – Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs Shelton Benjamin – What a disaster. Started slow, picked up nicely, and just as they were hitting their stride and turning this thing into something very good (Benjamin hitting a paydirt for a nearfall, and his running belly to belly where he jumps up to the top turnbuckle as the highlights), Nakamura slipped off the ropes on what may have been the finish (presumably a springboard Bom-a-ye). Benjamin scrambled for a quick pin attempt, but then they got lost. A few sloppy spots followed, before Nakamura hit a traditional running Bom-a-ye for a super flat finish. Aside from the final minute, this was a pretty good match. But that final minute was as ugly as it gets. Let’s forget this ever happened. **
Heading into the main event, my thoughts were that Okada, in his first defense since winning the title back, had not only the pressure of living up to the standards of the Hiroshi Tanahashi world title matches, but also the added pressure of saving what to this point was an underwhelming show. It added an interesting dynamic to what otherwise was a match with a predictable outcome.
10. IWGP Heavyweight Title – Kazuchika Okada (c) vs Minoru Suzuki – This would have been much better in front of a different crowd. The crowd hurt a few of the matches on this show, but none as badly as this. The match was well structured and told a fine story, but the crowd just wasn’t buying it. Suzuki worked the arm, much like Tanahashi did on the last iPPV against Okaka, and also worked for sleepers/chokes, and did all of his bully spots. The problem, was the crowd didn’t buy the chokes, so they came off as rest holds instead of dangerous, dramatic submission attempts. Suzuki tried to ambush Okada from the start, as they teased the flash finish, with Suzuki going for the Gotch Piledriver right away. The rest of the match was Suzuki working the right arm (Rainmaker arm), working chokes, and trying to hit the Gotch Piledriver with Okada coming up with clever reversals. They went over 30 minutes, with Okada hitting a Gotch Tombstone Piledriver, followed by a Rainmaker. This was a decisive win over the top heel in the company (if you consider Nakamura & Okada tweeners, which I do). Add a 1/4 star with a better crowd. ****