All eyes were on New Japan’s “Back to the Yokohama Arena” event, for both business and creative reasons.
Ticket sales leading up to the event, the first in the 17,000 seat Yokohama Arena in over a decade, were nothing short of dire. New Japan’s aggressive 2014 expansion has included shows in five different countries, a risky double PPV event held two days apart in February, and later this year, the G1 Finals moving out of its traditional home, the relatively cozy 11,000 Sumo Hall, and into the 35,000 seat Seibu Dome. The slow advance ticket sales for this show represented the first snag in momentum for a company that has seen nothing but growth in nearly every facet of business since 2011.
A potential reason for the lack of initial interest in this show? The huge booking risk at the last major PPV event, Wrestling Dontaku. AJ Styles, in his first match for the company, representing the heel faction The Bullet Club, ended Kazuchika Okada’s long IWGP Heavyweight Title reign in the main event. But the issue wasn’t that Styles, the first gaijin to win the belt since Brock Lesnar, won the title. The issue was the manner in which he won it, via heavy outside interference and an American style double cross by Okada stable mate Yujiro Takahashi. While the core fan base accepts American style finishes on undercards, you have to go back many years to find an example of any sort of shenanigans in an IWGP title match, and it is a huge risk to add this sort of western style element to New Japan main events.
It was too soon to tell coming into this show if the fans were rejecting the current main event direction, or if New Japan was simply biting off more than they could chew by running such a huge building. Fan reaction for the Dontaku main event suggested the former, but with that said, the Fukuoka crowd that night was largely dead for most of the show. It also doesn’t help that the Japanese fan base is clearly unfamiliar with AJ Styles beyond perhaps knowing his name. It was clear that the Fukuoka crowd was completely unfamiliar with his trademark moves. A month earlier at Invasion Attack, there was a scary lack or reaction for his run in on Okada at the end of the show.
In addition to the risky main event booking, this show featured what is hopefully the culmination of the Gracie’s vs Kazushi Sakuraba & Shinsuke Nakamura storyline, which has been a complete dud. Nakamura vs Daniel Gracie positioned second from the top certainly wasn’t helping the slow ticket sales, whether the main event direction ends up being a valid excuse for the slow moving tickets or not.
Some positive momentum was gained with two excellent joint shows with Ring of Honor in the weeks preceding this event. Could New Japan keep that positive momentum, and win back some of the good faith they lost in Fukuoka?
1. Road to BEST OF THE SUPER Jr. XXI: Jushin Thunder Liger, Tiger Mask, Mascara Dorada & El Desperado vs. Ryusuke Taguchi, Alex Shelley, KUSHIDA & BUSHI – This was a super hot opener, exactly what you want out of a match like this, with all eight guys taking turns getting their shit in. Crowd was hot for all of it, and was already proving to be a better crowd than Fukuoka. In a bit of a surprise, BUSHI pinned Desperado to win it for his side. Fun stuff. ***
2. Special 8 Man Tag Match: Yuji Nagata, Manabu Nakanishi, Tomoaki Honma & Captain New Japan vs. Karl Anderson, Doc Gallows, Yujiro Takahashi & Tama Tonga – Honma was the babyface in peril early, leading to a hot tag for Nagata. Pretty formulaic match, with Yujiro using a new Olympic Slam style finish on CNJ to pick up the win for the Bullet Club. The BC got into the faces of Gedo & Jado, who were doing commentary, after the match. **
3. NWA World Tag Team Title – 3 Way Match: Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima (c) vs. Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith Jr. vs. Rob Conway & Wes Brisco – This was as good of a three way NWA tornado tag as you are gonna see, and it was way better than it had any right to be. This was the best I’ve ever seen out of Brisco. Kojima in particular looked great here. This was the return of KES after missing a couple of tours, and they looked good as well. Brisco is still being billed as the master of the figure four, and he kept going for it on Tenzan. KES tried to hit a Killer Bomb on Kojima, but he broke away and went wild on everybody. He really looked great. Tenzan had Brisco beat with the Anaconda Vice, but Bruce Tharpe (wearing a purple sequined jacket) hopped on the apron. He took a comically exaggerated bump that once again straddled the fine line between slightly hokey and over the top wacky. Kojima hit his big lariat on Brisco, and Tenzan followed with a moonsault (which landed on Brisco’s head) to retain. I expected KES to win here. Good match. ***1/4
4. Special Tag Match: Toru Yano & Takashi Iizuka vs. Minoru Suzuki & Shelton Benjamin – Iizuka turned on Yano and hit him with a chair, and then used the the iron glove to the throat after Benajmin delivered a Paydirt. Suzuki then used the Gotch piledriver for the win in under a minute. KES was still at ringside from the previous match, and Suzuki-gun proceeded to kill everybody in sight, including Gedo & Jado at the announce table. CHAOS loses another member, as Iizuka joins Suzuki-gun. This got over good with the crowd. They flew Benjamin all the way to Japan to deliver one Paydirt. Nice work if you can get it. More of an angle than a match. NR
5. Special Singles Match: Tetsuya Naito vs. Bad Luck Fale – Naito came out to a cool laser light show, and has new gear. He started off on fire, including a great looking missile dropkick off the apron.
Naito worked his ass off in this match, and the structure & story were great, but I just have a ton of trouble buying Fale as a monster. This was like a better version of the Kofi Kingston vs Titus O’Neil matches from Superstars, because even though I think Titus is better than Fale, Naito is about a million times better than Kofi. Words can’t express how great Naito was here. To me this was the best Fale match to date that didn’t involve an accidental face crushing, and it was all Naito, with his great hope spots, selling, & facials. Naito kicked out of the grenade for a big pop, but then Fale used the Bad Luck Fall for the win. This is the type of performance that makes you understand why Naito is referred to as a wrestling genius. ***1/4
6. Wrestling vs. Jiu-jitsu MMA Fight: Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Rolles Gracie – They kept this very short, so it was inoffensive. Some lame looking fake grappling, a few submission teases with rope breaks, and Sakuraba wins with a kimura. Could have been much, much worse. **
7. NEVER Openweight Title: Tomohiro Ishii (c) vs. Kota Ibushi – When I think of the great singular years in modern pro wrestling history, among others I think of Ric Flair 1989, Samoa Joe 2005, Bryan Danielson 2006, KENTA 2009, and even though we haven’t even hit June yet, i’m ready to add Tomohiro Ishii 2014 to the list. This man is producing masterpieces every single time he steps through the ropes, against a wide variety of opponents. Ishii is the clear favorite for Wrestler of the Year. Remember when Kota Ibushi would repeat the same spots every match, and basically have the same bout over & over? Remember when Kota Ibushi had issues with pacing & selling? Those days are long over. The turning point for Ibushi was the great El Generico trilogy from DDT in 2012, and his time in New Japan has helped further refine his work. He is now firmly among the elite. This match was incredible, even with a scary looking botch that either knocked Ishii silly for a few minutes, or that Ishii cleverly sold as if it knocked him silly for a few minutes. Either way, the botch ended up being seamlessly incorporated into the match. Well timed dual fighting spirit one counts got me off of my couch, and Ishii’s busted up eye added to the drama. Ibushi eventually succumbed to a brainbuster, and Yujiro attacked Ishii which sets up the next challenger. A great match, with Ishii on his way to an all time great year, and Ibushi on his way to superstardom. ****1/2
8. IWGP Tag Team Title #1 Contenders Match: Hiroshi Tanahashi & Togi Makabe vs. Hirooki Goto & Katsuyori Shibata – The story early, after all of the trash talk back & forth since Tanahashi’s autobiography has come out, was Tanahashi standing up to Shibata’s bullying tactics, but Shibata essentially dominating him anyway. Seeds were clearly being planted for both a tag feud between these two teams, and also a singles feud down the line between Tanahashi & Shibata. Shibata was kept out of the finish, as Tanahashi hit a High Fly Flow on Goto, and Makabe followed with a King Kong Knee Drop. Tanahashi & Makabe will face, and very likely beat, Guns & Gallows for the IWGP tag titles. I expect these two teams to continue this feud over the titles at that point, possibly building to a Tanahashi vs Shibata singles match at Wrestle Kingdom. This is a worked feud firmly planted in reality, as it’s pretty obvious Tanahashi does not like Shibata, and there is a ton of bitterness over Shibata jumping the New Japan ship during the dark times only to be brought back when the going is good. ***1/2
9. IWGP Intercontinental Title – Wrestling vs. Jiu-jitsu MMA Fight: Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. Daniel Gracie – This was too long, and was hurt by the endless chokes Gracie used that defied any semblance of believability for anyone who has even seen a small sampling of actual MMA. Nobody survives chokes for as long as Nakamura did. I’ve typed too much about this already. Nak won, and this tiresome feud appears to mercifully be over. Fale presented himself as the next challenger. Anything is better than a Gracie. *1/2
10. IWGP Heavyweight Title: Winner of AJ Styles (c) vs. Kazuchika Okada – Styles was accompanied by Anderson, Gallows, and Tonga. Red Shoes tried to kick them out, but they pleaded their case and he let them stay. Anderson tried to interfere a few minutes in, and then they were kicked out for good. Later, Yujiro & Fale ran down, and they teased the Dontaku finish, but Ishii ran in and killed Yujiro with a lariat.
From there, this was your usual very good Okada title bout. Styles moves were way more over this time around than they were last month. Okada went for his tombstone, but AJ slipped out and hit the Pele kick. Styles used the Bloody Sunday, and pinned Okada clean with the Styles Clash. This was the finish they needed to both establish Styles as a credible threat, and also put the screwjob finish firmly in the rearview. Good match, right finish. ****
This was a solid show with some solid booking, as New Japan finds itself with several exciting new directions. Iizuka has joined Suzuki-gun, which breaks up a very stale tag team. Tanahashi/Shibata is just starting to simmer. Ishii not only had another great match, but seems to have been elevated as well. Nakamura appears to finally be finished with the Gracie’s. Ibushi once again came up a little short versus a heavyweight, but showed incredible heart as seeds continue to be planted for his eventual heavyweight run to stardom. Where Dontaku left many questions, this show provided several answers. Sometimes the booking in this company moves at a snails pace, but at the end of the day, Gedo & Jado always seem to have a plan, and things tend to come together. This show has quelled many of the uneasy feelings left by last month’s show, and we can all exhale.
Big thanks as always to @SenorLARIATO for the great gifs.